New baseball coach familiar with Vikings

There was a familiar face awaiting the LaBrae baseball team when they met their new coach this year.

Jim Bailey has been around Leavittsburg for quite some time. He has been a teacher at the school district for 16 years, and he was the president of the LaBrae Athletic Club, the youth baseball organization, for several seasons.

He’ll become even more recognizable if he can get the Vikings to reach the potential he sees in them.

“What’s nice is I’ve had all these kids in class,” said Bailey, who takes over for longtime coach Rick Aldridge. “I teach sixth-grade math. We’re not a big school, so I’ve kept in contact with them. I go to their basketball games. We say hi in the hallway, and I think they were pleasantly surprised when I took the job because they all came through the youth program when I was there.”

Bailey could be a good fit for an up-and-coming team.

The Vikings return 10 lettermen and one of the conference’s best players in junior Malakai Roberts, a pitcher and second baseman who led the Vikings with a .429 batting average as a sophomore in 2018. Senior Colton Stoneman is another one of the best in the All-American Conference’s Blue Tier. The shortstop made just five errors in 19 games last season while batting .333.

When combined with a veteran cast of teammates hungry to get back atop the AAC, Bailey is optimistic.

“If they stay humble and work hard, yes, there’s no doubt about it,” said Bailey of competing for a league title. “We’re going to be competitive with anyone we step on the field with.”

It starts with Roberts.

The junior didn’t pitch all that well as a sophomore, but Bailey sees ace potential, and the Vikings need that to be the case. They had a team ERA of 5.73 in 2018, allowing 134 hits and 73 walks in 118 innings pitched.

Roberts, already a two-time all-conference selection, has the stuff to change that. He throws in the mid-to-low 80s, Bailey said, has strong breaking pitches and good control to keep batters honest.

“He’s the real deal,” Bailey said. “He’s a good leader. He has a lot of self confidence, but it’s not arrogance.

“We had a long first inning against Campbell (to start the season), so there was a long break in between innings,” Bailey recalled. “He came out and walked the first two guys, so I called timeout and went to the mound. I said, ‘Hey, I’m just out here to give you a break. Here’s what we’re going to do in the infield,’ and I started talking about how we were going to play it if a guy hit the ball. I said, ‘I’m not worried about you at all.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m going to strike the next three guys out.’ What actually happened was he picked the guy off of first base, and then struck the next two guys out. So, he has confidence.”

Stoneman leads in a different way.

A quiet, meticulous shortstop with a solid bat, he provides a strong work ethic along with a stoic confidence and a toughness (he was a starting running back on the football team) that rubs off on his teammates.

“He’s not a verbal leader,” Bailey said. “He’s just a hard worker, and if you hit it to him, he’s a vacuum.

… He’s solid at everything he does.”

There’s depth as well.

Seniors Dane Sprague, Damian Airwyke, Phillip Barnhart and Quintan Perry are returning letterwinners who will play key roles. Junior Zach Kellar is another emerging player with a talented skill-set, and Bailey lauded several underclassmen (some of whom he just recently coached) with the ability to step in right away.

Kellar and Perry, a left-hander, follow Roberts in the rotation, and their progression will be an essential part of LaBrae’s potential success. The lineup has some length as well. Kellar, again, will be relied on after he hit .308 last year, and with Airwyke, Sprague and sophomore Connor Meyer also hovering around the .300 mark in 2018, Bailey likes what he sees in year one.

“If I don’t mess things up, we should be OK,” he said with a laugh. “… They have solid fundamentals, we can hit all the way through the lineup and our pitching is solid.”

It’s a good recipe for success.