Lenoir City High School Head baseball coach Aaron Simmons knew about the disjointed culture he inherited last summer.
But in a span of nine months riddled with unknowns and restrictions, he’s quickly built a team that plays hard, runs fast and — most importantly — believes.
The Panthers (8-4, 2-3 District 4-3A) have now won eight of the first 11 games of the season for the first time since 2011.
“I totally believe this team can achieve what it wants, and I know that the last few years they haven’t believed that,” Simmons said. “We’ve pushed about it, pushed about it and trust in the process and believing in yourself individually as a team player, and that’s what we mold and will be trying to build here. That’s what we’re doing now, and they’re starting to do that and becoming what they believe in. If they consistently believe in themselves and not worry about the other team and worry about what we can do, this game for them can totally change.”
After dropping a 3-1 loss to Bearden High School on March 29, the Panthers rebounded Thursday with a 9-1 win over The King’s Academy in the I-75 Pileup tournament at Loudon High School.
The Panthers followed up Friday with two more wins over Greenback and Polk County by a combined score of 22-4.
“We came into that tournament knowing what we could do,” Simmons said. “The tournament we were in this past weekend, you know, we played the game the way it’s supposed to be played and pitched the way we needed to pitch. We’ve got to do that going into the district as well because when you’ve got seven or eight arms you can throw out there any day, you’ve got to be consistently throwing strikes and you can’t be an inconsistent wave. They’ve just got to be better at that.”
Lenoir City was hoping to extend its win streak to four on Monday in a District 4-3A matchup against the Hardin Valley Academy Hawks but fell 14-2.
The Panthers went up 2-0 in the first inning thanks to a two-run homer by senior Wyatt Collins, but the Hawks blew open the lead in the fourth inning with five runs.
The Hawks then went onto outscore Lenoir City 9-0.
“Wyatt was making good pitches but everything he was throwing at them, they were just squaring it up,” Garrett Tollett, LCHS senior outfielder, said. “We couldn’t really do anything in the field except a couple of plays. They were hitting it in the six hole and everywhere around us.”
The Panthers move to 2-3 in District 4-3A play, but the coaching staff is pleased with how the team has battled teams with top-tier talent.
“We 100% have the ability to beat teams in this district, and I’ve told them that since day one,” Simmons said. “It’s all about their drive and playing seven innings of baseball. When they do that, we’re a totally different team. When they start beating themselves up and put so much pressure on themselves, it’s a totally different outcome. I do believe that we can compete in this district and, at this point, let’s make some noise while we’re in this district. We’re in one of the toughest districts in the state of Tennessee, and we’ve just got to be ready to come out each and every day we do play.”
The seniors have enjoyed playing under the new coaching staff and are embracing the wins, losses and lessons taught between.
“We’ve just kind of relaxed a little bit after we got off to those two wins in the district, and so we’ve kind of set back and it’s shown on the field,” Tollett said. “We’ve just got to get back in gear and get going again. Definitely the motivation’s been different and the coaching in general with just the teaching in the offseason and the workouts and just everything getting us prepared for the season really. It’s been more of a drive to win and having a coach that’s willing to win and wanting to go with us. That’s really the key to it.”
The Panthers will play again at 6 p.m. today at Heritage High School, followed by a 6:30 p.m. first pitch Thursday at Sweetwater High School.
Lenoir City will round out the week at 6 p.m. Friday at home against the Anderson County High School Mavericks in a rematch.
“Each week I tell my players to win the week and you can’t let one loss determine your entire outcome for the week,” Simmons said. “We’ve got three more to play this week. ... We’ve got to come out ready to play on Wednesday and then worry about Thursday and Friday when it comes to Sweetwater and Anderson County.”