After just two seasons as head coach at Farragut High School in Knoxville, Tenn., it seemed Matthew Buckner had nowhere to go but down. After just one season as head coach at Lexington (Ky.) Catholic High School, Taylor Brooks really only needed to climb a couple more rungs on the ladder to reach the top.
These two young coaches – Buckner is 33, Brooks is 25 – are guiding two of the top programs in the nation, and their 2012 teams will butt heads in Lexington on Friday and Saturday in the Perfect Game National Game of the Week. Perfect Game has partnered with eCoachSports and iHigh.com to live-stream the two games for viewing at www.perfectgame.org, www.ihigh.com and www.knightvision.com.
The Friday-Saturday doubleheader involves more than just the 2012 editions of these two teams, although they are formidable. Farragut brings a 22-5 record and No. 45 national ranking to Lexington, while Lexington Catholic stands 18-3 and is ranked one position lower at No. 46.
This is really about spotlighting two of the nation’s perennially strong programs that have been dominant in their respective states during this millennium. And while Buckner and Brooks are new to their schools as head coaches, both have fairly long associations with their respective programs.
FARRAGUT HAS WON FOUR STRAIGHT Tennessee Class AAA state championships and seven of the last nine (eight overall). Buckner led the Admirals to a 42-6 record and a state championship in his first season in 2010 and followed that up with a 37-8 record and another state title last year. He was named the Class AAA Tennessee High School Coach of the Year after each season.
Buckner graduated from Monterey (Tenn.) High School, played baseball at Roane State Community College and earned degrees from the University of Tennessee. He was an assistant coach at Farragut under former coach Tommy Pharr from 2001-03, left to serve as head coach at Bearden High School from 2004-09, then returned to Farragut after Pharr left before the 2010 season.
“(Pharr) had been a real special man in my life … and Farragut is a great place; it’s in a great location and it’s a great baseball school,” Buckner said. “Fortunately for me, we’ve been able to remain successful and continue a very strong tradition.”
He doesn’t feel like it takes a rocket scientist to figure out why Farragut keeps producing championship-caliber teams year after year.
“The main thing that makes it successful is that we’ve had good players,” Buckner said. “But I feel like we have a pretty much year-long program that requires an extreme amount of dedication and intensity. If you don’t want to be a part of that, that’s OK, but I feel like when our guys get through it they’re pretty tough.
“We have this real quality year-long program that allows the guys to develop … and our community’s dedicated to it, our school’s dedicated to it, and we’ve just been real fortunate in all those categories.”
LEXINGTON CATHOLIC LAST WON a state championship in 2009 – it also won titles in 1999 and 2006 – but played in the state tournament last year in Brooks’ first year at the helm (it’s played in three of the last four state tournaments). The Knights won the Kentucky 11th Region championship after finishing with a record of 30-7 and Brooks was named the 11th Region Coach of the Year.
While this is only Brooks’ second season as the Knights’ head coach, he has been around Lexington Catholic most of his life, except for the four years he spent at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. A 2005 graduate of Lexington Catholic, Brooks was promoted to the Knights’ varsity unit as an eighth-grader and played five seasons of varsity ball. After returning from college, he served as the Knights’ pitching coach in 2010.
“It’s been awesome. It’s really been a rewarding thing for me,” Brooks said of his relationship with the school. “Everybody that plays in the program is very close. I’m sure it’s like that for a lot of programs but the guys you played with at Lexington Catholic; we’re all friends regardless of how old you are. We’re a pretty tight-knit community and there’s a lot of support there, and everybody cares how you do.”
2011 Catholic graduates Tyler Wells and Taylor Martin were both drafted last June, but both are in college this spring. Wells was taken in the 31st round by the Boston Red Sox but honored his commitment to Ohio University. Martin was a 41st round selection of the Colorado Rockies but is at the University of Kentucky.
“We don’t necessarily have the draft picks coming out of the school but the guys play with a team mentality and they really play with ‘Lexington Catholic’ on their chests, which means a lot,” Brooks said. “We tell our kids that we’re going to support them and we want to prepare them for life, whether they want to be a baseball player or they want to be a doctor or lawyer or whatever they want to do.”
BOTH COACHES FEEL THEY HAVE THE HORSES to make deep runs in their respective state’s postseason tournaments. It would be a serious breach of tradition if they didn’t.
Farragut has only two seniors on its active roster, and they’re good ones. Shortstop/right-hander A.J. Simcox has signed with Tennessee and right-hander Jordan Newby with NAIA Freed-Hartman University in Henderson, Tenn.
A third senior, left-hander Xander Taylor, was lost for the season to injury but has signed with Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn.; junior centerfielder Cameron Strickland has committed to Tennessee. Another standout junior, right-hander Kyle Serrano, is the son of UT head coach Dave Serrano.
Buckner won’t speculate about a fifth straight state title.
“We don’t ever really talk about that. We just talk about getting better and trying to compete at the highest level at the end,” he said. “A lot of people bring that conversation up to us, but we just talk about winning our conference and then we talk about winning the region, and we really never-ever talk about (winning state).”
Lexington Catholic is led by a trio of seniors, each of whom has signed Division I letters-of-intent: right-hander Zach Haynes with Indiana, shortstop/centerfielder Will Hurt with Coastal Carolina and catcher/second baseman Tyler Jackson with Western Kentucky.
“We’re a pretty dynamic team where we can play for some big innings or we can small-ball and beat you that way,” Brooks said. “We’re capable of winning a game in a few different ways and that’s important for us.”
Brooks is grateful that the players from both teams are being given the opportunity to share the spotlight on a national stage.
“It’s rare that you get a program the caliber of Farragut to come up and play you,” he said. “It’s pretty cool that they’ll come up and play just two regular season games with us in our park, and I think it’s good for our kids to play that kind of competition. It’s good for the program and it’s a game with national implications, and that’s important.
“It’s good for the state of Kentucky, as well, because we don’t get to see two nationally ranked teams square-off every day in Kentucky,” he concluded. “I think it’s important for the whole baseball community in Kentucky that we’re able to do that.”