By Trey Williams
Columbia State baseball coach Mike Corn and Walters State baseball coach Dave Shelton kind of feel like they are headed home when trying to score another victory against one another.
Corn and Shelton were teammates at Unicoi County. Corn, a year older (class of 1993), played shortstop on Charlie Baxter’s back-to-back state champions (1991-92).
The Tennessee Community College Athletic Association adversaries have been on the same baseball fields since their Little League days in Erwin.
“You think about how small of a town Erwin is and what are the chances that two guys from the same town end up being head coaches in the same league for however many years competing against each other,” said Shelton, whose teams advanced to three JUCO World Series in his first six seasons prior to this season being canceled due to COVID-19. “There are more days in the year that we talk to each other on the phone than not, and we probably spend more time talking about deer hunting and fishing than we do about baseball.”
Shelton was an assistant at Walters State when Ken Campbell’s team won the JUCO World Series in 2005. He succeeded Campbell in 2014, and his first season came to an end with a loss to Corn, whose Columbia State advanced to the World Series, where it won two games.
“It’s fun being head coaches in the same league having been friends for however many years,” Corn said. “I remember David all the way back to Little League, and I remember in basketball he played for Temple Hill and I played for Rock Creek. I was in his wedding. He and I have a special relationship.
“I think Dave does a great job down there and I think we do a great job here. If we’re not gonna win I want him to win, and I’m sure he feels the same way.”
The teams didn’t get to square off this season. Walters State was 5-1 in the league and 20-7 overall after winning seven straight when the season was canceled.
“I really felt like we had a chance to be one of the best offensive teams we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some pretty good offensive teams,” Shelton said. “And the pitching, we weren’t just terribly deep, but we were deep enough. Our top seven or eight were pretty good.
“I think we finished second in the nation in runs scored and most of my guys had just really started to swing it the last six or seven games. I mean it has to play out and anything can happen, but we had the same caliber team that we could get to the World Series with and make a run. I hate it for them because they had worked really hard to show what they can do.”
Led by Ole Miss signee Brandon Johnson, pitching figured to anchor Corn’s team this season.
“We were gonna pitch really well,” Corn said. “Our No. 1 signed with Ole Miss. Another weekend starter signed with East Tennessee State. We had three Division I weekend starters. So we would’ve been fairly competitive. We were looking forward to it.”
Unfortunately, for Shelton, he had something to compare the coronavirus pandemic to in terms of baseball. The Senators were banned from postseason play in 2017 due to a paperwork error, and that team also had a good chance of reaching the World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
“It was as gut-wrenching of a thing for our program as we’d ever been through,” Shelton said, “and I really felt like that happened again when this all went down. Surreal is probably the best way to describe it.”
Surreal, indeed, says Corn.
“It was like we were in a movie,” Corn said, “and you’re waiting for somebody to say, ‘Hey, everything’s okay. Let’s go back to normal.’ And it never happened. … For so many weeks we thought we were still gonna be able to play baseball again.”
Even in early May it’s not been completely digested.
“It’s May, it’s postseason time,” Shelton said. “This is what we live for at Walters State. It’s been really tough dealing with it at this time.”
Shelton said the time with family has been a blessing. His handyman skills have improved, as a new patio and large shoe rack will attest. His wife Stefanie coaches golf at East Tennessee State. They have a 9-year-old son (Dalton) and a 6-year-old daughter (Madison).
“During a time like this,” Shelton said, “you realize how many things get neglected while you are coaching.”
Corn is single. Of course, both are married to their work, especially this time of year.
“In 21 seasons of doing this, from Jan. 1 until the end of May, this is your life,” Corn said. “It’s 16 hours of your day and all a sudden it’s taken away from you.”
Corn has spent time camping, hunting and fishing. He also makes custom fishing rods he sells to friends at cost.
“Coach Shelton likes those trout, but I’m more of a smallmouth guy,” Corn said. “I love to float the river and chase those brown bass.”
The coaches occasionally try to land the same players on the recruiting trail.
“Mike’s more secretive than I am,” Shelton said. “He’s sneaky. He’s always been way sneakier than I am. He tries to keep it quite like I don’t know about them. But I know about them, I just won’t say anything to him.
“Probably the best part about it is we have two completely different styles of coaching. If you had to describe his favorite type of player I would say it’s a speedy defensive guy. I’m more of the – I’ll sacrifice on defense, but it’s gonna be hard to get in my lineup. Give me guys that can really swing it.”
Corn chuckles at Shelton’s “sneaky” description. It suddenly seems apropos, though, when considering that Corn, who lives southwest of Nashville, is already dialed in on Unicoi County freshman Lucas Slagle and has heard about rising freshman Chris Chavez.
“Lucas’ dad is Donnie and Sharon’s his mother,” Corn said. “Donnie grew up about two houses down from me on Mohawk Drive. We called him Bones. He’s not Bones any more. … Lucas is gonna be a big kid.
“I’ve watched my dad throw batting practice to Lucas before he was in high school. I remember when he was Little League age we’d go down to the Little League park and I would watch him hit. I’ve thrown to him. He’s just a remarkable athlete. I haven’t seen (Chavez) like I’ve seen Lucas, but my dad has told me about him.”
Unicoi County coach Chad Gillis could have a fun run for the next several seasons. Of course, successful baseball teams are nothing new in Erwin. Charlie Baxter’s Blue Devils won four state titles (1984, 1991-92, 1995) and finished runner-up five times.
“We beat Brentwood Academy (in 1991),” Corn said. “Jason Byrd caught. Bryan Tate played first. Donnie Hensley played second. I played short. Robert Wilson played third. In the outfield we had Kip Lemon, Chad Tipton and Craig Peterson. Mark Banner pitched quite a bit. Mark Masters won a game in the state tournament (one of those years) Mark Banner was our ace both of those years, I guess.”
The passionate Baxter’s intensity propelled the program.
“I don’t know if you would call it fear, but there was a certain respect we had for coach and the way he carried himself,” Corn said. “He sometimes demanded – without saying a word – that respect. He worked us so very hard, which was amazing in a good way. We spent a lot of time on that field and there was a sense of a hard-working culture that coach just created himself. I mean he worked hard and he expected the players to work hard.
“If I remember anything it’s coach putting in the time with us and wanting us to be good as individuals. I’ll never forget that work ethic.”
Shelton grew up idolizing Unicoi County players such as Patrick Ollis, Anthony Whitson, Steve Treadway and Trey Whitson.
“I can remember being in like the third grade and Anthony Whitson came to my school and talked to us about ‘Just Say No’ – you know, not doing drugs,” Shelton said. “He had just signed professionally and was driving this new car to school and we all got his autograph. Nolan Ryan couldn’t have come to our school and we’d thought any more of him. It was a pretty special place to grow up.”
Blue Devil baseball was ingrained in Erwin’s youth, Shelton says, due to what Baxter built.
“Most kids grow up dreaming of being Ozzie Smith and watching big league games,” Shelton said. “Growing up in Unicoi County I grew up dreaming of being a Blue Devil. I grew up with the radio playing out in the yard listening to Blue Devil baseball games and reenacting being a Blue Devil. While most kids were pretending they were in an Atlanta Braves uniform I was pretending I was in a Unicoi County Blue Devil uniform. And once we finally got there it was that special to us and we didn’t want to let down the tradition. You learned the value of tradition when you’re in a program like that.
“I’ve fought hard to instill that mentality at Walters State. I feel like we’ve built a tradition at Walters State. It’s a word I use with my program every day. … And what makes me think in those terms and the way I approach things are because of the way things were at Unicoi County playing in Charlie’s program.”
Another Baxter product, Skyler Barnett, is the head coach at Milligan College.
“That tradition there in baseball goes back a long way,” Corn said. “I’m proud to be a Blue Devil and I know David is, too.”