By Trey Williams
Former Unicoi County catcher Skyler Barnett’s first complete season as the Milligan University baseball coach created about as much cause for optimism as his 14-8 debut during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Barnett, who graduated from Unicoi County in 2008, led the Buffalos to a 27-23 record less than two years after being hired as Milligan’s third head coach in as many seasons.
Barnett’s Buffs went 14-12 in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, the league’s fourth-best record. The success came despite Milligan having its final conference series canceled due to a quarantine-forced cancellation from Montreat, which finished 11th in the 12-team league.
“And we were pretty young,” Barnett said. “We really only lose a fifth-year catcher and then everybody else has a couple of years left – and more years if they choose to use it. That’s the exciting thing.
“We were really young on the mound, had some really good arm talent. They didn’t have a lot of experience, but after this year that’s changed. And offensively, we return basically everyone next season.”
And some of the returnees will likely be competing to keep their jobs.
“It’s gonna be exciting – and with some new pieces in the mix to create competition at different spots,” Barnett said. “We feel like we’ve got a really good recruiting class with some transfers and some incoming freshmen and some local guys in the mix too that will give us a little iron-sharpens-iron effect.”
Barnett would’ve liked to have had Unicoi County pitcher Travis Whitson, but things just didn’t work out. Whitson’s Blue Devils impressed Barnett during a 2021 season in which they advanced to the sectional under coach Chad Gillis, who returned to coach at his alma mater when Barnett was having an “awesome experience” playing for Charlie Baxter.
“I think my last year (’08) Chad was coaching the ninth- or eighth-grade team and went with us on our yearly trip to Charleston,” Barnett said. “He’s got a catcher over there (rising junior Valentin Batrez) that’s swinging the heck out of it, and the (Lucas) Slagle kid and the Whitson kid. … Chad has a bunch of guys that kind of know baseball. That’s the refreshing part. He may not have the most tooled-out kids, but they play hard and they play sound, and that’s a brand of baseball that makes you proud to be an alumnus there.
“I saw ’em play South at Elizabethton and I saw ‘em beat Elizabethton in one of the final regular season games, and the catcher, I think, had like four hits that day – just unconscious.”
Barnett caught for the Blue Devils. One of his favorite moments was catching sophomore Seth Whitson’s shutout in a 5-0 regional championship victory at Pigeon Forge in 2008.
“Seth Whitson’s pitching a gem,” Barnett said, “and there’s a runner on second base and a base-hit up the middle and there’s a play at the plate and I’m catching. It was just a really big momentum play and we tagged him out. It wasn’t a game-ending play, but you could sense it was a moment like, ‘Game’s over now.’”
Many of his favorite memories involve matchups with Elizabethton.
“I enjoyed the battles we would have with Elizabethton at Joe O’Brien Field and at Unicoi,” Barnett said. “We had knockdown drag-outs with guys like Ethan Williams, Andrew Lingerfelt, Jake Ford – those were some good ballplayers. Corey Headley was just a freak of an athlete. We had some really good teams.”
Milligan recruits nationwide – and beyond, but utilizes Northeast Tennessee for a significant portion of its roster. Science Hill’s Chance Hall and Ben Grable had productive seasons, as did Greeneville’s Braden Spano and Augustus Fraley.
“There is talent (in the area),” Barnett said. “And we have a pretty diverse roster. I think we have players from 12 different states and Sweden, Taiwan and Puerto Rico.”
Among those in the incoming recruiting class Barnett mentioned are Daniel Boone’s Gaven Jones and Preston Miller, David Crockett’s Cody Wheeley, Noah Rosato of Elizabethton and catcher Logan Hullette (Dobyns-Bennett/Walters State/Radford). Hullette is one of the few transfers from four-year schools that Barnett anticipates signing – not that there’s a lack of ‘em out there.
“The transfer portal is insane,” Barnett said. “I think there are about 1,800 names in there now just in Division I baseball.”
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Barnett was an assistant at East Tennessee State in 2017 when the Buccaneers’ roster included two players now in the College World Series – Tennessee’s Jackson Greer and Cullen Smith of Arkansas.
“They were really outstanding players and good kids,” Barnett said. “They just had another opportunity somewhere else and chased it.”
Barnett is thankful that Milligan athletic director Mark Fox gave him an opportunity to realize his dream two years ago. Fox, a former Milligan catcher, is retiring this summer.
“He’s your No. 1 fan, No. 1 critic,” Barnett said with a chuckle. “We’d get some phone calls like, ‘Why are we throwing too many breaking balls?’ We’d always go back and forth. He’s great. The baseball talk is great.
“He’s helped out in so many ways. The biggest thing he’s done to help out is just the mentorship – the navigating as a first-time head coach, the ins and outs on the administrative side and giving great opinions on how to do things here and there and Milligan-specific stuff. Mark Fox has been like a second father to me. He’s been incredible to work under. We are going to miss the heck out of him.”
Barnett is eager to work under incoming athletic director Christian Pope, who worked the past 10 years as an associate AD at Campbell University before being hired by Milligan president Bill Greer.
“I love what I do,” Barnett said. “I love this area. I love the kids. And I love Milligan. Dr. Greer’s outstanding. It’s a great university. … I’m excited about (the future).”