Skipper Jones had spent 16 years as an assistant baseball coach at Jacksonville State for the legendary Rudy Abbott and nearly the same amount of time as a head coach at Pell City High when he elected to retire to his home in Prattville.
“It was 97 miles one way,” Jones said of the daily commute between Prattville and Pell City. “I did that for 12 years. After I got 30 years in the state (retirement system), I said I can’t do this anymore. I retired last year.”
Retirement didn’t last too long. Jones contacted one of his former Jacksonville State players, AUM coach Marty Lovrich, and asked if Lovrich knew of any voluntary college coaching positions he could take. Lovrich, in turn, pointed him to the new program at Pike Road High, where he contacted another former coach with Jacksonville State connections, principal David Sikes.
“He said it’s a brand-new school,” he recalled. “You’re going to have all the facilities you want.”
And while that may be true in the future, Jones was handed one of the more difficult coaching tasks you could imagine. He has a team of underclassmen in a school with no seniors, practicing and playing wherever they can because they have no field.
“I can name you eight different places we’ve gone,” Jones said, naming off Trinity, Brew Tech and the AUM practice field as candidates. “We’ve taken ground balls on our football field, we’ve taken fly balls in a pasture, we’ve gone to the back of a church and hit. It’s just wherever we can get to do something.”
On Thursday, the first-year program (2-7) pulled off its biggest win to date, upsetting Trinity 4-2 at Jason Armstrong Field. Pike Road, a team that had suffered its share of heartbreaking losses and only had a win over Carver this season, found a way to stand toe to toe with the area’s best baseball team for seven innings on Thursday.
“We preach that we have to keep getting better,” Jones said. “Hey, they believe they should be able to play with these (Trinity) guys. And those guys are huge compared to my kids. Everybody we’ve played, their juniors and seniors are just physically stronger than us. I keep telling our guys this is where we’re going to be, we’ve got to just keep working to get there.”
Jones knows what it takes to get there. As a pitcher at Jacksonville State, he was on a Division II World Series team as a sophomore in 1979. After three years as a graduate assistant at Jacksonville State, he coached baseball and football at Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., for two years before returning to Jacksonville State in 1989, the year Marty Lovrich was a senior. Over the next two years, he would help Abbott lead the Gamecocks to the Division II World Series at Paterson Field, where they won back-to-back national championships.
Abbott retired after the 2001 season and Jones went to Pell City, where he would serve through the 2017 season. Now on Thursday, he was coaching a team against Lovrich’s son, Trinity pitcher Camden Lovrich. Pike Road scored two quick runs with a two-out single by Julian Humphrey, a double by Eli Clark and a single by Griffin Robinson.
They doubled the lead in the third when TJ Blackmon scored on a wild pitch and Andrew Kenney greeted reliever Parker Hughes, the fourth of six Trinity pitchers, with an RBI single for a 4-0 lead.
Trinity scored a pair of runs in the seventh when Tyler Britton doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly and Jack Singletary beat out an infield single, scoring Will Aaron, for the only hits off of Pike Road starter Jack Martin.
“I’m very happy with the way we approached this ballgame,” Jones said. “These kids could be down and out right now because we’ve had some bad luck. You just have to keep plowing and be positive and play baseball the right way. These two teams today, they played baseball the right way.”
Trinity (6-2), who hasn’t faced that type of adversity, got a lesson in humility.
“The ball didn’t bounce our way, that’s why baseball is such a humbling game,” Trinity coach Ken Whittle said. “We talked about the focus (before the game) and they didn’t take it to heart. We didn’t get better. We did a poor job of our approach at the plate.”
On Thursday, Jones had a glimpse of what his team could be like when all the pieces fall into place. He’s smart enough to realize that won’t happen a lot this season as his team bounces between pastures and church lots, looking for a place to work on fundamentals.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I try not to make excuses for the kids. But we played a couple of days ago when the wind was bad and we dropped a couple of fly balls. We haven’t had a chance to take fly balls off of a bat with the wind blowing.”
Whittle has plenty of sympathy for the veteran coach who’s trying to build a program from scratch.
“What I like about him is he’s an honorable guy who’s trying to teach young men the game of life, not just the game (of baseball),” Whittle said. “They got after it and played hard and deserved to win. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
And while Jones knows it won’t happen overnight, he also knows Pike Road High has a bright future that he’ll be proud of when he retires – again – in a couple of years.
“This is going to be a good program when my young coaches take over,” he said.