By Trey Williams
Former Unicoi County catcher Skyler Barnett is catching on quickly as a college head coach.
Barnett’s first season at Milligan College was off to a promising start when the coronavirus pandemic cut short his debut campaign.
Barnett was the Buffalos’ third head coach in as many years. But the turnover didn’t prevent Milligan from starting the season with a 14-8 record, including a 5-1 mark in Appalachian Athletic Conference play.
The Buffs defeated No. 9 Indiana Tech, 2-1, dropped a one-run decision to top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan and suffered two one-run losses to No. 11 University of the Cumberlands during their encouraging opening.
“That was really promising,” said Barnett, who played for Charlie Baxter at Unicoi County (class of 2008) before joining East Tennessee State’s program. “There were some really good ballplayers on this year’s team that graduated or are moving on. So it’s not like we had a bad team. It was more like we had a team that just had a little bit different style, and we were trying to implement our style. That’s all.
“It really goes to show you how well these guys did in transitioning from three head coaches in three years. That’s hard for anybody.”
Barnett coached at Walters State in 2019 under Unicoi County alumnus Dave Shelton.
“Dave’s program is amazing,” said Barnett, who has also been an assistant at ETSU (2018), Carson-Newman (2015-17), Austin Peay (2014-15) and Lincoln Memorial (2013-14).
“I’ve been fortunate to learn under a lot of good guys like David Shelton, Tom Griffin, Joe Pennucci,” Barnett said. “They’re just real people and they care about their players.”
Barnett’s staff at Milligan includes legendary Elizabethton Twins manager Ray Smith and pitching coach Ryan Mossman.
“Coach Mossman has done an incredible job with the pitching staff,” Barnett said. “And then Ray Smith with our hitters is – and just in a baseball sense – has been a huge help. Those are big contributions to the success we had.”
Barnett had to scramble on the recruiting trail after taking the job last year, but the Buffs landed the likes of starting pitcher Brock Browning and freshmen position players Brandon Marello and Ben Grable.
“We had some work to do in recruiting and we were pretty fortunate to pick up some guys that made impacts for us,” Barnett said. “Our Friday starter, Brock Browning, was a guy we signed in June or July.”
Signing his first lineup card and delivering it to the umpire gave Barnett pause.
“The first time it hit me was when we were playing our opening series at Truett-McConnell,” Barnett said. “It was my first game and I’m walking out there to hand the lineup card over – and in eight years of coaching I’d never done that before. So that was like, ‘Okay, wow. Here we are.’ And then I trot over to third base and I’m watching the game from a different angle. So that was a big a-ha kind of inspiring moment for me. …
“There are a lot of moments where you sit back and say, ‘Wow, this is really awesome. This is really cool.’ The ability to have an impact is a little bit greater. But still, at the same time, it’s not hard to be humble and still just be Coach Barnett. I tell the guys that all the time: You don’t have to speak around me differently or anything like that. Obviously, there’s a line between player and coach, but I’m still Coach Barnett, not Head Coach Barnett.”
Playing for Charlie Baxter provided an education at Unicoi County.
“I just remember the practices being very different, very intense,” Barnett said. “And the way he could communicate without saying a whole lot of words – that really meant a lot. That was pretty special to me.
“The way he could look at you and talk with you and explain things and teach without really using a whole lot of words, I think that was really good. He was probably the ultimate competitor and really instilled that in a lot of what I do today – and other people. Golly, it was awesome to play for him.”
Baxter brought off-the-charts intensity.
“There was one season we probably lost more than we should’ve,” Barnett said. “I remember coming back from playing Kingsport and we stopped at the Burger King because bus drivers eat free at Burger King, and he’s not even getting out of the bus because he’s upset about the loss. It was one of those deals where you just hurried up to get your food and get back on the bus.”
Barnett laughed recalling battery mate Ethan Williams’ unsuccessful attempt to go after Daniel Boone slugger Dylan Pratt while shaking off signals from Baxter, who was already a TSSAA Hall of Famer and had won four state titles at that point. Pratt was a star at Walters State and ETSU, and eventually competed in the College Home Run Derby in Omaha.
“Dylan Pratt was a beast,” Barnett said. “So Coach Baxter was calling pitches and Ethan kept shaking me off. The game plan for Pratt was don’t give him anything to hit, don’t let that guy beat you. We play in the smallest park in America. Don’t let that guy beat you.
“And Ethan’s like, ‘Let’s challenge him. Let’s go get him.’ Ethan’s like, ‘I know what I’ll do. We’ll just throw him nothing but breaking balls.’ He’s shaking me off and throwing breaking balls. So we throw Pratt three breaking balls in a row. He swings at two of them and one of them is a ball. The fourth one comes in there and it’s a meatball, and he hits the house in left field.”
Baxter hit the roof about the time the ball hit the house.
“Baxter comes out there and just lets us have it,” Barnett said with a chuckle. “He even lets me have it, too. He was like, ‘He’s eventually gonna hit it if he sees it four times!’”
Unicoi County baseball, Barnett says, is in good hands with coach Chad Gillis.
“I know they’ve got some talented kids over there that I’ve been in contact with Chad about and we’re gonna continue to follow them,” Barnett said. “I know Chad’s done a good job over there and I think they’ll be a really good team next year and the year after.”
And if 2020 is any indication, so will Milligan.