By Trey Williams
Science Hill baseball coach Ryan Edwards would’ve never guessed a record-setting career was in the cards when he arrived from Austin Peay in 2008, but he knew he’d been dealt an ace.
“We had a left-hander named Rowdy Hardy who got to Triple-A with the Royals and a left-hander named Matt Reynolds who got to the big leagues with the Rockies and the Giants when I was at Austin Peay,” Edwards said. “And my first year at Science Hill Daniel Norris walks out from basketball and throws his first bullpen in February and I went home and told my wife Sarah, ‘This kid is a freshman and he’s got better stuff right now than those two guys had at Austin Peay. And he’s 14.’ We knew from day one that that guy was special.”
Edwards (345-128) recorded a special victory last week when the Hilltoppers beat Cherokee for his 342nd career win. John Broyles went 341-129 in 26 seasons (1942-67).
Norris’ teams went 123-43 (2008-11). Fittingly, he got a win for the Detroit Tigers 48 hours prior to Edwards’ milestone with five shutout innings. Edwards recalls Norris striking out 12 in six innings in a state tournament win against Oakland his freshman season.
“I remember Joel Mangrum, who was a coach at Milligan (College) at the time, told me that my freshman, who had just turned 15 April 25th, hit 89 miles an hour in the sixth inning,” Edwards said. “So that was unbelievable.”
In addition to Norris, Edwards has coached the likes of Will Craig, Reed Hayes and Will Carter, who are all playing professionally. He pitched to Craig when he stole the show while finishing runner-up in the college Home Run Derby in Omaha.
Of course, John Broyles had talent, too. He coached Steve Spurrier, future major leaguers Ferrell Bowman and Joe McClain and 1951 College World Series star Billy Joe Bowman (Tennessee).
“Science Hill’s a great place to coach,” Edwards said. “The 2011 team had Zach Thompson batting leadoff, Heath Loyd in the two hole, Daniel Norris in the three, Will Craig in the four, Will Carter in the five and Kevin Nelson in the six. I mean what better one through six can you come up with than that – unless you come up with an All-Star team.”
Edwards noted countless players keying many victories, including pitchers such as Brandon Feathers, Reece Westmoreland, Lucas Anderson, Ben McKinney, Tyler Wilson and Andrew Sweeney. And he seemed to name every current or former assistant he’s had.
“Andy Wallen’s been with me for 10 years of my 12,” Edwards said. “He is the stability. … He’s got over 500 wins total as an assistant and head coach. He was with all the Bernie (Young) teams.”
The 43-year-old Edwards grew up in Bolivar, Missouri watching his father cheer passionately for the Kansas City Royals.
“When I was a kid we had a cat named Amos after Amos Otis,” Edwards said. “I was a huge George Brett fan. But I could name all kinds of guys from the ‘80s. I can still remember Buddy Biancalana and Bud Black coming to my elementary school and getting their signatures.”
Edwards pitched three years of college baseball at Lincoln University and Southwest Baptist.
“I gave it everything I had for three years of Division II baseball,” Edwards said. “I was a low-80s pitcher that just knew how to command it and competed with everything I had.”
He began coaching while still in school, starting with a seventh-grade American Legion team. Edwards coached at a number of high schools and colleges, including Tennessee Tech and Wabash College. He coached future major leaguer Shawn Kelley at Austin Peay.
“He went toe to toe with David Price in that Austin Peay-Vanderbilt game in the spring of ’07,” Edwards said. “It went 10 innings and my guy went 10 innings and he outpitched David Price. It was 1-1 going to the 10th and David Price came out of the game and my guy went back out there.”
When his oldest daughter was born Edwards decided he needed to be home more, and opted to leave the college ranks for Science Hill. Never could he have envisioned what’s ensued.
“I told the kids in the locker room I’m just an ole boy from Missouri that got cut in high school and loved the game so much that I stuck with it and made the team and went on to play a little small college baseball,” Edwards said. “I’ve just always loved the game of baseball, and I’m just humbled to even be able to be a part of something like this. … When I got the Tennessee Tech job I had to tell my dad, ‘Thank you for instilling this love of baseball in me, but now I’ve got to sit here and cry because I’m moving away from home to Tennessee.’ But we talk every day, and I met Sarah while I was at Tennessee Tech my third year.”
Relationships mean more than victories for Edwards. Players are extended family.
“Coach Edwards was an awesome coach to play for,” said David Bryant, a starting freshman at Radford University. “Every day I would love to come to the field because of the atmosphere he created. It was an awesome experience and I wish I could come back.”
Baltimore Orioles minor leaguer Reed Hayes started in football, basketball and baseball at Science Hill.
“What I loved about Coach Edwards and remember him doing for me is working around other sports and helping me grow as a player on the baseball field,” Hayes said. “He knew the game of baseball was extremely mental and wanted me to perform the best I could, so he talked to me on keeping it simple and competing every day. And he also set up throwing programs during basketball season to get my arm in shape for the season.”
Edwards chuckles while discussing the talents of Hayes, Craig, Norris and company. Craig was ACC player of the year at Wake Forest and joined Norris with a seven-figure contract after getting drafted by Pittsburgh. He’s currently third in the International League (Triple-A) with seven home runs.
Craig was a two-way player at Wake Forest, as was Hayes at Vanderbilt. And Will Carter is pitching for the Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees) in Double-A.
Edwards’ first team beat Oakland twice by scores of 3-2 to reach the state semifinals. Norris allowed one run in six innings while striking out 12 and left with the game tied, 1-1. Daniel Sharp got the win after allowing a run in one inning of relief.
Caleb Mancuso walked to cap a two-run seventh by forcing in the winning run.
In the second win against Oakland, Mancuso pitched two innings for the save after five strong innings from Lucas Anderson (Austin Peay). Those ‘Toppers included former MLB catcher Jeff Reed’s son Lance, Corey McPherson and Ben McKinney.
Science Hill lost to Bearden in the sectional in 2009 and returned to the state tournament in 2010. With a team that included Norris and Carter as juniors and Craig as a freshman, the ‘Toppers went 1-2 in Murfreesboro, sandwiching an 8-3 defeat of Coffee County with lopsided losses to Mount Juliet. Norris got the victory after starting the second game.
“We didn’t want to throw Daniel (in the opener) on three days rest back to back,” Edwards said. “I just didn’t want to do that to him. We played Tuesday in the state tournament. Our plan was to throw him in relief if we had a lead late, and we had everything lined up for us against Mount Juliet and we just couldn’t quite hold on to the lead there in, I believe, the fifth inning. We were gonna give him the ball in the sixth.
“But I don’t regret it, because I’m not gonna run him in the ground, you know. We knew his best days were not gonna be at Science Hill and we weren’t gonna do that to him.”
Science Hill didn’t return to the state tournament until beating Karns in the sectional last year.
“That was an awesome, unbelievable moment just because we hadn’t been there in so long and we went there two out of the first three years I was the coach,” Edwards said. “And basically, you know, you kind of take it for granted. And then you get shut out from going there for so long that it was really a special moment.”
Edwards is proud of the senior seasons produced by pitchers such as Grant Rabbitts, Reece Westmoreland and Brandon Feathers. Rabbitts pitched a gem in a hard-luck extra inning sectional loss at Farragut in 2015. Rabbitts all but outdueled Patrick Raby to no avail. Raby set Vanderbilt’s career wins record last week.
“Raby threw about 160 pitches that night and beat us in nine innings,” Edwards said. “We had ‘em beat and they got one of those Farragut mystical, late-inning home runs to tie the game. Rabbitts was probably under 110 pitches for nine innings. He was under 120, I know.”
Feathers, now at Radford, struck out 11 while pitching a two-hit shutout against Karns in the sectional last year. He finished the season 9-2 with a 1.14 ERA.
Westmoreland took a giant step his senior season. A two-way player, Westmoreland became the ace in 2016 and delivered two huge home runs in the district tournament. He hit a walk-off home run in a do-or-die game against Daniel Boone and hit a three-run home run in the second of two straight wins against Dobyns-Bennett to claim the district championship.
Science Hill also beat D-B two straight to win the district in 2013 after beating Boone, 3-2.
“Those wins against D-B are up there,” Edwards said. “And we’ve had some battles with Boone in the district tournament in that Tuesday game where you win to get in the regional tournament and the loser goes home. One I remember was when Will Craig and Reed Hayes both pitched. I wanna say we started Reed and then brought Will. Reed went four innings and brought Will behind him.
“We were losing to 2-1 and came back and won, 3-2. We scored in the seventh inning in that one to get into the region. That game was at Volunteer – the same year that we beat Dobyns-Bennett twice. That was an unbelievable moment.
“We basically Johnny Wholestaffed it the first game and closed it out with Rabbitts, who’d had several saves that season as a sophomore. And then we said, ‘Heck, he’s loose. Let’s put him out there and see how far he can go.’ And he proceeded to throw less than 90 pitches for seven innings and beat ‘em with a complete game.“
Another feeling of triumph was pitching to Will Craig when he finished runner-up in the College Home Run Derby in Omaha.
“I told Will Craig when he was in high school, ‘Hey, if you ever get in one of those Home Run Derbies, you better call me to throw for you,” Edwards said, “because I’d watched Josh Hamilton and his high school coach. They did that most historical Home Run Derby when Josh Hamilton just went off. And his high school coach was out there throwing to him. And sure enough, I get a phone call from him on Memorial Day weekend saying, ‘Hey, I’ve made the Home Run Derby in July, and I want you to come throw.’
“Of course, I was nervous in that Home Run Derby. Will finished second but he was the one that put on a show, just like Josh Hamilton finished second in that Home Run Derby but he was the one that put on the show. In the very first round I was so nervous. I mean I didn’t know what to do in a crowd like that throwing BP. And thankfully, Will bailed me out. I made some bad pitches and he hit ‘em out. So then I loosened up a little bit and we just got on a roll. It was like we were back in high school again at Broyles Field. He went off in that one round that put him in the championship. Of course, he was tired by the time he got to the championship just like Josh Hamilton was. That was a lot of fun.”
Edwards enjoys calling pitches during games and throwing pitches during batting practice. He was on the shelf briefly in 2016 after hurting his shoulder while diving in the outfield in a clumsy attempt to loosen up a struggling team.
“I dove for a ball and I’d consider it a pretty good dive,” Edwards said. “The players said it was kind of more like a belly-flop. And, of course, I landed on my throwing shoulder.
“We were struggling. In fact, we were 16-13 headed into our last four games before the district tournament. And here I am trying to do something fun with the kids so we can get ‘em fired up and try to get ‘em to relax and come together as a team, and I don’t know what I did to my shoulder, but I was out for like two weeks.
“I remember Coach Wallen saying, ‘This is just miserable. We can’t get consistent, can’t get anything going as a team. And now we’ve lost our BP thrower.’ I remember going to the training room every day trying to get that arm going again. It hurt to sleep on my shoulder that summer.”
Another moment that makes Edwards laugh is when Norris pitched in relief against Sullivan Central in a junior varsity game at the beginning of his freshman season. Edwards knew Norris would pitch significant varsity innings that season, but he had veterans in Lucas Anderson and Ben McKinney.
“And the first week we only had a couple of varsity games,” Edwards said. “So I told (JV coach) Jeff Price, ‘I need to get Daniel some work.’ So I gave him specific instructions: I want you to throw him one inning.
“And they were playing Central and got up like 20-0 at Broyles Field and here they are following my instructions and warming up this left-hander that’s probably throwing 85 to 87 (mph) over there in the bullpen up 20-0. And they run him out there for his only JV outing to get him his work.”
Edwards, most would agree, is the proverbial player’s coach. He can drive home a point without blowing a gasket and he can triumph in defeat, as was the case in the final game of Norris’ high school career. Norris took the loss when Science Hill was upset at home by Maryville in the sectional. Craig was a sophomore and Carter was also a senior, and no one saw it coming.
But Edwards seems blessed by the bitterness of that defeat.
“Obviously, we lost,” Edwards said. “But just being able to, you know, Daniel Norris gave us everything he had. I mean for four years that kid gave us everything he had, and he went through so much scrutiny by scouts and fans and colleges and agents and everything – he gave us everything he had, and they got a couple of bunts going and they took the lead and we took him out. And the wheels kind of got away from us there.
“But just being able to hug him and tell him I loved him right there at the end of the game on that mound, and then his sister (Melanie) makes a painting of the picture. Actually, he was praying when I went out there and I just prayed with him. That was an unbelievable moment just to have even in a loss. What we did was we praised God for giving us the opportunity to be together, and that was so hard to let go, you know. It was so hard to let go because the day I moved here he was a freshman.”
Two weeks before the Maryville loss, Science Hill had won at Farragut.
“They had Nicky Delmonico and we had Daniel Norris,” Edwards said. “And he went and did his thing – threw about a hundred pitches through six innings or whatever. We had talked about if Nicky comes back up, you’re gonna be in center field and if you want the opportunity I’m gonna let you face him. We were not walking him. We’d been asked by a lot of people, ‘Are you gonna walk him?’ He’d been getting walked by everybody. And I said, ‘No, we are gonna pitch to him. The fans want to see it and we’re gonna give the fans what they want just because it’s not a postseason game here. We’re gonna go after him.’
“So Nicky came up down one with a runner in scoring position. For sure, anybody walks him right there and pitches to next guy. I made a mound visit to Andrew Sweeney and brought Daniel in to the mound and the scouts that had just left all started stopping to come back down there and see what was getting ready to happen. I said to Daniel, ‘What do you think here?’ He said, ‘Sweeney’s got this.’ I said, ‘All right.’
“So I told Andrew, ‘Hey, make him beat your changeup.’ He had a really good changeup. He went after him. He fouled off a bunch of pitches. We left one up and, man, I don’t know how he missed it. And then Andrew finally threw like a beautiful 2-2 changeup and struck him out to end that game. It was definitely the best regular-season win I’ve ever been a part of, for sure.”
Edwards won’t predict the future, of course, but he likes the sound of being Science Hill’s coach 10 years from now.
“I’m 43 years old and this is what I love,” Edwards said. “I really do this for the relationships. I guarantee you for Coach Broyles it wasn’t about wins. When you listen to those guys who played for him, man, they loved him so much. And let’s put it in perspective here. They only played like 10 games some of those seasons. He put in 26 years.
“I let the coaches coach and we always have fun. I tell every team, we surround ourselves with people we enjoy being around because we spend a lot of time together. And our goals are always to love and respect each other, love and respect the game and have character that says we’re gonna do the right thing no matter what the cost. That’s our three goals every year. I just want to do things the right way and let the results be what they are.”