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High School | General | 2/8/2021

Baylor still on top in Tennessee

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Daniel Corona (Perfect Game)

The concept of employing co-head coaches at the high school level isn’t a new one but the practice remains rare, at least among the nation’s most high-profile prep programs.

There is a special place in the Perfect Game High School Southeast Region where the co-coach plan is not only being put to the test but it’s acing exam after exam in a region of the country where high school baseball is as strong and as relevant as any place on the national map.

Greg Elie and Mike Kinney are beginning their fourth season serving as co-head coaches at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the tandem has already left an indelible mark.

They’re set to lead a talented outfit that enters what promises to be an interesting 2021 season as the No. 12 team in the PGHS Preseason Top 50 National Rankings and the No. 2 squad in the PGHS Southeast Region (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee) behind only No. 4 Buford (Ga.) HS.

The Baylor administration’s decision to name co-coaches proved to be a brilliant one from the get-go. The Raiders won the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) Division II state championship in both 2018 (24-6 overall record) and 2019 (27-6) and were looking for the magical trifecta in 2020 before the season was halted.

“It’s just like any other coaching staff,” Elie told PG during a telephone conversation late last week. “We were both head coaches before this and when we talked with the AD we kind of said that there’s not very many times in a baseball game that the (entire) staff is not going to be pretty much in tune with what’s going on.”

Because Baylor School is a diverse, coeducational institution that welcomes both boarders and locals – referred to as day students – it is in a unique position to meet adversity head-on. And make no mistake, adversity and an abundance of challenges are sure to await this senior-laden group as an uncertain 2021 campaign gets underway next month in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

The Red Raiders will be able to take part in official practices on Feb. 15 and in the meantime the players have been doing things mainly on their own while following a set of strict COVID-related rules and guidelines. There are facilities available to them where, if they need to get some work in, they’ll be able to do it.

“They work really hard,” Elie said. “That’s why we’re in the position that we are now is because they get after it.”

Kinney told PG his guys are excited to play this season, not that he ever thought for a minute it would be any other way. These high-schoolers are kids at heart and, simply put, they just love playing the game of baseball.

With this group, every one of them has their sights set on continuing to play beyond high school and no matter what transpires it’s important they keep working toward achieving their goals and realizing their aspirations.

“Let’s make it to where we want to make it no matter if it’s a pandemic year or the easiest year we’ve ever had,” Kinney said he told them. “Let’s continue to do what we have to do as players, and bend and be flexible and have a good attitude about what we’re doing.”

The 2021 varsity roster is stocked with eight D-I recruits from three classes. The senior headliners include Mike Kinney’s son, third baseman Cooper Kinney (No. 93-ranked, South Carolina commit) and shortstop/right-hander Daniel Corona (No. 142, Wake Forest), a boarder who is the No. 6-ranked 2021 prospect in his home state of New York.

Other seniors at the forefront are first baseman Vytas Valincius (No. 221, South Carolina); third baseman/right-hander James (Jay) Dill (No. 224, Missouri); first baseman/left-hander Nick Kurtz (t-500, Wake Forest) out of Pennsylvania and right-hander/outfielder Chris Campanella (t-500) from North Carolina.

Top juniors include another New Yorker in infielder/right-hander Henry Godbout (No. 429, Virginia) and right-hander/outfielder Patrick Johnson (t-1000, Middle Tennessee St.); outfielder/right-hander Caleb Hampton (No. 68, South Carolina) is the face of the sophomore class.

This is a team made up of players who have been together throughout their prep careers despite the fact that some of them came in from out of state. Elie called it a “special group of young men” and noted that Kinney, Corona, and Kurtz were teammates on USA Baseball 14u and 16u national teams in years past.

Kinney, Corona and Valincius were all in attendance at last summer’s PG National Showcase in Hoover, Ala., and Corona was at the 2018 PG 14u Select Festival in Fort Myers, Fla., so these are prospects quite familiar with some of amateur baseball’s biggest stages.

Elie and Coach Kinney are certainly counting on their talented seniors to exhibit the type of leadership skills that are expected from them but that’s nothing knew with this group. According to Kinney, players of this magnitude became leaders when they first entered the program.

“You just kind of pretended that they weren’t in charge but they were; they’ve been in charge since day one,” he said. “...This has been the first time, really, where we’ve said, hey, it’s your turn. You get to actually not pretend to be the leader – you’re the guy. If it doesn’t look right, you fix it.

“It’s an accountability issue as much as it is anything, with all of them trying to get to different spaces. They just feed off each other and the leadership comes from within, really.”

In dealing with COVID-19, Elie explained that the people associated with Baylor School have been “blessed” because the school is a private institution of good means that has its own research laboratory.

The lab is equipped to conduct coronavirus testing and is able to provide it throughout the entire Chattanooga area. With that indispensable tool at their disposal, the students and faculty at Baylor are tested on a regular basis.

“The protocols that are in place at the school are really amazing to be able to have a boarding school and have the athletics still going on,” Elie said. “Of course, we’ve had our bumps in the road like everybody else but the things that have been put in place by the administration and especially our trainers have allowed us to keep things relatively normal.”

Kinney said the message he and Elie are trying to drive home to the players is a simple one, and its basic tenet is to live in the moment. If they are able to play this spring, it’s important to savor every minute you’re on the field because it’s impossible to know when it might be taken away from you again.

The “enjoy every minute of it” refrain has always been around but after the 2020 experience it’s a much more prevalent thought in the minds of these teenagers.

When the games stopped before they really even got started a year ago – the Red Raiders finished 1-0 in 2020 – there was, of course, tremendous disappointment, but there was also resignation. There was nothing anyone could do about what happened and the players understood that.

“We just started going, hey, what’s the next thing we can prep for? Let’s go, let’s prep for it,” Kinney said. “Here’s a great opportunity...so let’s take the next two and let’s make a goal. So we were really goal-oriented with what each one of them needed to do individually.

“It wasn’t really fun but they took to that and they’ve done a really good job in the summer. (PG) has seen them and obviously you’ve ranked us high, so you know the type of kids that we’ve put together. We’re just totally excited to get to play and showcase these guys.”

Elie and Kinney had previously served as assistant coaches under former head coach Billy Berry in 2016-17 before assuming the role of co-head coaches.

Berry, now the head coach at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tenn., coached those two seasons following the retirement of the legendary Gene Etter, who served as Baylor’s head baseball coach for 41 years. Etter led the Red Raiders to state championships in 2003 and 2006 and state runner-up finishes in 2002 and 2008.

As assistants, Elie worked primarily with the hitters and Kinney with the pitchers, and it seemed like too good of combination to break up in the mind of the school’s administrators.

“They were like, wait a second. Let’s not change it for the kids too much, let’s just make y’all co-head coaches,” Elie said. “We looked at it and laughed and said, 'We’ll give it a shot.' We both kind of have the personalities for it and it’s worked. And with the boarding component it just was really able to take on a life of its own. You sprinkle in a couple of boarders who are really talented with the local kids...

“That’s one thing I’m really proud about is if you look at the (number) of college commits right now it’s almost split down the middle with day students and boarding students.”

Selling the players and, most importantly, their parents on Baylor School is not difficult, Kinney said. The kids long for the opportunity to play alongside other like-minded prospects who perform at a very high level and the parents see the accompanying academic opportunities as a springboard into college. Excellence can be found just about everywhere on Baylor School’s 600 acre Chattanooga campus.

From a personal standpoint, Coach Kinney is certainly enjoying coaching his son Cooper at the high school level after also coaching him as a youngster. He called it a “very special piece” anytime a parent gets the chance to pass their passion onto their children.

“I’m a baseball coach, that’s what I do for a living, and he has been with me the entire way,” he said. “Now that he’s able to play we kind of look at each from different lenses and he’s done just an outstanding job of being able to deal with letting me be the coach.”

And now Cooper Kinney and his Red Raider teammates will be given an opportunity to compete for a third straight TSSAA D-II state championship, something they missed out on a year ago. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but they’re certainly going to give it a try.

Expectations are high and that’s to be expected when you enter a season as the No. 12-ranked team in all the land. These seniors were sophomores the last time they wore a state crown which means that championship feeling is still very fresh in their minds.

Coaches Elie and Kinney should remember 2018 and 2019 quite fondly, as well. They were named the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association (TBCA) Coach of the Year at the conclusion of both those seasons, proving beyond a doubt that two heads can be better than one. And those heads like what they’re seeing as they move this 2021 team forward.

“I feel as good as you can feel for having the season pulled out from underneath you last year,” Elie said when asked his thoughts of the upcoming season. “You always have that in the pit of your stomach that it could happen (again) at any moment but we’re set to go to the NHSI the second week of the season, so we’re excited about that; we’ve got a pretty stout schedule.

“These boys have been working towards winning state every year and competing on a national front and this is the first year they’re really going to get to see that.”

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