Get in line

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By Travis Jenkins

For as long as he’s been at Lewisville as the head baseball coach, Billy Keels has had a tradition. After the final game of the season, whether that comes after a trophy and medal presentation or somewhere short of a state championship, his seniors walk away from the post-game huddle and stand along the first base line. Keels tells the rest of the team about the talent that is leaving the Lions and challenges them to step up and fill the void. The team, the coaching staff, family members and fans then walk that senior gauntlet and say goodbye. Practically speaking, the seniors deserve a proper send-off from the people they are closest too but symbolically, the seniors leave, then hand the mantle of leadership to the guys left behind.

When Lewisville’s season ended with a loss at Lamar two weeks ago in the upperstate championship bracket, the scene was more emotional than usual. It was an open secret that Keels had coached his last game, having made the difficult decision a while back to leave his baseball coaching job at the end of this year, largely to spend more time with his children.

Keels played baseball from the time he was old enough to pick up a ball until he literally had nowhere else to play. After standout careers at Chester High and Wofford College, he went to a tryout camp for the Cincinnati Reds and said he’d have signed for a bus ticket bound for the lowest level of rookie ball. His playing days were over and it looked like his association with baseball was too. He was selling insurance and doing so successfully, but his thirst for the game was still there. He coached Chester’s American Legion team for a couple of seasons but soon found that wasn’t enough. Only interacting with players for a few weeks in the summer didn’t give him the opportunity to really impact their lives. About that time, the coaching job at Richard Winn Academy came open. Taking it meant a $15,000-a-year pay cut but with the blessing of his wife Angie, he took it, quickly built a winner and then replaced legendary coach Bennie McMurray at Lewisville. I’ve noticed a lot of common threads in Keels’ teams over the years and unbridled love of the game is one of them. That obviously starts at the top.

Lewisville’s teams under Keels were tough, both physically and mentally. That started in practices, which were always meticulously planned and carried out but intense as all get out. You don’t prep for pressure situations by not simulating pressure situations. Before umpires started cracking down on the practice of leaning into pitches recently, I’m certain Lewisville led all of organized baseball in hit-by-pitches. Lewisville graduate John Jordan probably has a permanent whelp on the back of his arm from the way he would skillfully turn his body away from an inside pitch to make it look like he was getting out of the way, but actually jut his arm right into the path of the ball. I understand his coach was good at that during his playing days. That one guy on base might end up making the difference.

Keels was also ahead of his time in terms of developing pitching. Before pitch counts and mandatory rest days were implemented last year in high school baseball, most teams, Class A squads especially, would just ride one ace for an entire season. Keels always worked and took the time to cultivate pitchers. He usually had co-aces and always had four or five guys who could win him a game if need be.

Half of the high school teams Keels coached were among the last four standing at the end of the year. In nine of the last 10 years, his teams advanced to the upperstate bracket and three in last eight years played for state. Some would say it’s because Lewisville always has talent, but that assessment is off the mark. At Class A schools, talent ebbs and flows wildly. When you have a consistent winner it is because of the support system around a program (both administrative and community) and good coaching.

Beyond just his 390 high school victories, Keels has made a huge impact on the kids he’s coached. He’s learned when kids need a pat on the back or a kick in the tail, but you can tell they love playing for him. That’s probably because they know he’s trying to get the best out of them but also because they know how much he cares about them. A lot of them get teary-eyed talking about how Keels has been a father figure to them and helped them become a man. I’ve been to scholarship signings at other schools where players asked Keels to be present because he coached them on a youth travel team or made a call to college coaches on their behalf or drove them to a camp to get some exposure. Things like that don’t make your own team better, but they might make a kid’s life better.

Keels always wants the attention on his players, not on himself so much, but I wish he’d joined his seniors in that walk to the first base line at Lamar. That annual ceremony is all about acknowledging outgoing leaders and letting everyone they’ve impacted tell them goodbye and tell them what they’ve meant to the program.

For Keels, that would have been a very long line.