By Steve Williams
Knoxville Christian School baseball is just in its second season, but the Knights have been holding their own in games against local teams with established programs.
After losing its season opener at Alcoa 10-5 on March 10, KCS won at Karns 6-4 the following day to raise an eyebrow or two.
A week later, the Knights notched a 6-4 victory at Class A state power Grace Christian Academy before dropping a 7-6 decision to Hardin Valley Academy, which currently has one of the best won-loss records on the local scene.
“We’ve been playing a tough schedule this year,” said Coach John Barry, whose 8-5 ball club was scheduled to play Grace Christian again this past Saturday in the 11th annual Fighting Irish Spring Classic at Smokies Park in Sevierville.
Andrew Horn, Assistant Athletic Director at Knoxville Christian, which is located on Snyder Road in West Knox County, said “we’re excited” about the Knights’ fast-starting program.
“We’re looking into joining the TSSAA in the next two to three years,” said Horn. “Right now we’re in the preparation stage to fully apply.”
Horn said KCS has 80 students in grades 9 through 12 and 250 to 260 students in K through 12. As for athletics, the numbers are “aided by a lot of home school students.”
In its inaugural baseball season in 2013, Knoxville Christian posted a 20-6-1 record and was runner-up in the National Athletic Christian Association Division 1 tournament, which was played in Dayton. Faith Baptist Christian School Eagles of Brandon, Fla., were the NACA champions.
“That was the best high school team I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Coach Barry, who played at Science Hill High School and East Tennessee State University. “They had three pitchers who could throw over 90. The (NACA) director decided not to have them back. They were too good.”
Knoxville Christian also joined the Southern Christian Athletic Association this season
Eric Nolan is one of only two senior starters for KCS. The 6-foot, 180-pounder is the first baseman, bats cleanup and also is the ace of its pitching staff..
“He has a bulldog mentality,” said Barry. “It blows my mind that no college team has picked him up yet.
“He pitches in the low to mid 80s, has a curve, change-up and a side-arm fastball. He gets stronger as the game goes on.”
Nolan was the pitcher of record in the win over Karns and the loss to Hardin Valley. He also beat Hixson 5-3 and took the loss in a 3-0 setback at Anderson County last Monday.
The Knights’ starting lineup/batting order: freshman catcher Logan Adams, sophomore second baseman Sammy Held, sophomore shortstop Anthony Crowder, Nolan, senior 3B-OF Tyler Cage, sophomore 3B-OF Brent Richey, junior C-OF Nathan Bailey, junior CF Leyton Adams and junior OF-1B Cas Willborn or junior OF Austin Nations.
In addition to Nolan, other pitchers for Knoxville Christian include Crowder, Richey, Willborn and Bailey.
Coach Barry is high on the young Adams.
“In my opinion he’s the best freshman catcher in the city. Defensively, he blocks pitches, throws out runners and calls the pitches.”
Logan was just an eighth grader in the NACA tourney last season, but made an impression.
“The other team’s catcher was a senior,” recalled Barry. “He told Logan, ‘You block better than I do.’”
The 5-8, 155-pound Adams also is the Knights’ leadoff man, a rare spot in the batting order for a catcher.
Top reserves for the KCS squad include sophomore P-1B Noah Dunlap, sophomore INF-OF Landon Turner, sophomore pitcher Joel Ash, sophomore 1B-P Drake Lahr and 6-foot-2 freshman P-1B-OF Braden Forrester.
Zach Sweeney is one of three seniors and a key member of the team also, said Coach Barry. “Zach will be attending Lipcomb University in Nashville next year. He’s my right-hand man, unofficial team captain and co-pilot as we travel to away games.”
Barry said the Knights possess good team unity.
“They’re all best of friends. All team leaders, not to mention good Christian young men. They’re always positive and pick each other up. Really good to be around.”
In addition to its pitching depth, Barry said his middle infielders are a team strength, his players are “very smart” and base running is a plus.
“Before the season, I told them they’ve got to concentrate on small ball, because we’re not a power hitting team,” said Barry. “They (Crowder and Willborn) hit two 2-run home runs in the win at Hixson and were giving me a hard time about not being power hitters. They got the long ball out that day.”
To improve defensively, said the KCS coach, his players do a lot of “footwork with picks. I tell them they’ve got to have more reps.”
Another reminder: “We lost a 7-6 game to Hardin Valley Academy. We made costly errors early in the game.” KCS will get another shot at the Hawks on April 18 at HVA.
One of the Knights’ team goals is often tweeted by Coach Barry on social media. #Back2Back20Ws is one of Barry’s hashtags.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be a high school baseball coach,” said Barry, who worked several years as a hitting instructor at Diamond Baseball.
Barry is employed at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. In addition to the KCS varsity team, he’s also head coach of its junior varsity team, its 6th and 7th grade middle school teams and his 3-year-old son Ben’s Tee-Ball team. His daughter, Brooke, 2, is not into ball-playing, yet.
Eric Hill, pitching coach for KCS teams, pitched in the Phillies organization. Patrick Wade is the varsity team assistant coach and John McSwain is junior varsity assistant coach.
“We’re excited about finishing up the season, with the goals of a national championship and 20 wins,” said Barry.
The Knights are well on their way. And others are taking notice.