By Trey Williams
Recently hired Milligan baseball coach Skyler Barnett will be a rookie manager next season, but Milligan College athletic director Mark Fox is confident he’ll catch on quickly.
Fox is a former Milligan catcher. Barnett was a catcher at Unicoi County (class of 2008) and ETSU.
“Of course, catchers always think they’re the best,” Fox said with a chuckle. “As a catcher you’ve got a unique view of things and you have more autonomy than most players on the field, and oftentimes on a day-to-day basis, more impact than any other player on the field. … And Skyler has played and worked for some good coaches.”
Barnett played in high school for Charlie Baxter. His young coaching career has included stops at Austin Peay, ETSU, Lincoln Memorial, Carson-Newman and Walters State. He’s grateful for the knowledge he gathered working for the likes of Tom Griffin, David Shelton and Gary McClure as well as playing for Baxter.
“Charlie had that commanding presence,” Barnett said. “He would command a room when he would walk in and just kind of – he had your respect instantly just because of his wealth of knowledge. You knew he had a strong personality and a strong presence. I think what he taught me most was the attention to detail and fundamentals.”
Unicoi/Milligan alum David Shelton managed Walters State to the College World Series this year during Barnett’s lone season in Morristown. Barnett was wowed by Shelton’s recruiting skills and work ethic, and Shelton was impressed with Barnett.
“Skyler will do a great job at Milligan,” Shelton said. “He is a tireless worker who will hit the recruiting trail hard to build Milligan into a program everyone can be proud of. He only worked with us at Walters for one year, but I have known Skyler since he was 10 years old, and I know this is a great hire by Milligan. I am extremely excited to see what he does at my alma mater.”
Barnett inherits leading hitter Blake Dutton from a senior-laden team that went 19-26.
“There’s some guys that are coming back that have had some success, but it really is a blank slate,” Barnett said. “There are gonna be a lot of new faces.”
Fox said the baseball program is comparable to where it was when Danny Clark took over as the fourth coach in as many years in 2000. Clark had a successful six-year run, and has been a pitching coach with the Texas Rangers organization since 2006.
Barnett’s father Sam ran an indoor baseball facility in south Johnson City (The EDGE) when Barnett was growing up, and he was invariably eager to watch Clark teach baseball there.
“Danny Clark has always been a mentor of mine and I’ve always admired that guy from when I went to Danny Clark Milligan Baseball Camp when I was nine years old,” Barnett said. “Whenever I first decided I wanted to get into coaching, Danny Clark would give lessons over at my dad’s place at The EDGE baseball facility, and I would be so intrigued by how he taught and what knowledge he would bring. I would just go watch – go sit down and watch his lessons and see what he was talking about and doing. As a baseball coach I know Danny had some great, great local players – the Dustin Prices of the world, the Scott Shealys of the world. … Danny did a great job of identifying local talent.
“And look at the local talent that’s been produced out of Milligan College. Justin Motte, Nathan Fritz, A.R. Rhea, Spencer Street – local guys that had success at the NAIA level at Milligan College and continue to stay in this area and be impactful people of the Tri-Cities.”
Barnett said longtime Milligan assistant and wildly successful Elizabethton Twins manager Ray Smith would continue to be part of the Buffs’ program.
“That guy is of the utmost importance to me and also Milligan College baseball,” Barnett said. “He’s such an integral part of the program.”
Fox said Smith isn’t one to assert himself in trying to get a certain candidate hired.
“But he certainly feels good about Skyler,” Fox said. “The thing about Skyler is he’s focused and dogged. His mind’s going all the time about baseball. There are some basic (coaching) attributes: resilience, communication and organization. I think Skyler’s got all of those.”
Barnett said Fox told him the key to being a good baseball coach was scoring more runs than the other team. But seriously, he does want to keep it simple while not losing sight of who he is.
“I’m a big fundamental guy,” Barnett said. “We’re gonna play with energy and we’re gonna play with passion, and we’re gonna play with effort and attitude. And we’re gonna have a sense about us where we love the game of baseball and we’re gonna play hard and force other teams to make mistakes. … We’re gonna make baseball enjoyable.”