WATER VALLEY — Saddled with the difficult task of selecting a head baseball coach to take over a program that made it to two Class 3A state championship series in five seasons, the Water Valley Blue Devils hope they have hit a home run.On Thursday, it was officially announced that Kary Bridges was approved as the Blue Devils’ next skipper.
Bridges comes to Water Valley with a top-end pedigree that includes a standout playing career at Ole Miss, a 10-year minor league playing career and a four-year coaching tenure at storied program Oak Grove as an assistant and head coach.
Most recently, Bridges was an assistant coach last season at Brandon High one year after leading Oak Grove to a 14-5 overall record as the head coach.
“When you sit there and look at his resume, he’s played at a high level, played at Ole Miss and in the SEC and had some opportunities in professional baseball. He’s also someone who has coached at some quality baseball programs at Oak Grove and Brandon,” Water Valley Athletics Director Trey Allman said. “Anytime you look for a coach, you look for things that are going to improve the young men on and off the field, the intangibles and values that are important to the district ,and he has that.”
One benefit of having a long playing career is Bridges can relate to what the players will inevitably go though, whether it’s hitting streaks, slumps or other issues.
“I’ve been there. I told them the first day, as crazy as this sounds, errors don’t bother me tons,” Bridges said. “I made plenty of them. They’re going to happen and I realize slumps and bad at-bats occur. That’s just part of it. In coaching I try to draw from my playing experiences, how I felt during things, how I knew I was feeling during certain times and hopefully that will be helpful for them.”
Playing for someone with Bridges’ experience is exciting for several players.
“It’s very cool. He seems like a great guy and a good coach,” senior Walt McCullough said. “They said he played for Ole Miss and minor league baseball but that didn’t mean anything to me until I actually met him.
“He sat us all down and told us what he was looking for, what he likes and what he doesn’t like so I think he’s a pretty straight shooter.”
Junior outfielder Chris Conard echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “Playing is something that all the players on our team want to do, playing at a higher level like he did.”
Bridges has not been disappointed with what he has seen from his new team thus far.
“What I’ve seen our guys do so far, everything I’ve heard before about how well coached they are I can see that,” he said. “It’s not going to be a challenge on how to teach these guys how to play baseball, that’s for sure.
“Our biggest challenge is to take what I feel like we need to do, the way I feel like we need to play, and mold it. It’s going to be tough to change everything coming in in January. I can’t do everything just like he did, I’ve got to do things with my style. That’s going to be the challenge. And like I told them, that’s a challenge, not an obstacle. We will meet that challenge.”
Saddled with the difficult task of taking over the program in January, less than two months before the start of the season, is not something Bridges is looking at negatively.
“I don’t dwell on negatives. When it comes time to strap it on and play, we’re going to be as prepared as any other team,” he said. “Yeah, it’s a challenge, but if there’s a negative we’re going to try and make it a positive.”
He also isn’t scared off by the expectations that surround taking over a team that claimed the Class 3A North Half title and lost only two starters — the Blue Devils’ No. 1 and 2 pitchers in Josh Johnson (the Oxford EAGLE 2010 Player of the Year) and Shonquayle Jenkins.
“Coaching at Oak Grove like I did for four years, expectations are nothing new,” he said. “I’d rather be at a place that has expectations than at a place that doesn’t. While they did go to the state championship last year they didn’t win it, so that allows for a little bit of fire for unfinished business.”
Because Bridges has not coached in the area before, each player on the team will have an equal chance to impress.
“It’s not like I’m coming from somewhere they played, so obviously everybody has a chance to make a first impression on their coach,” Bridges said. “At the same time, I feel quite confident that the right guys were playing last year otherwise they wouldn’t have been as successful as they were.
“It’s an opportunity. I told the guys that everybody has been on a team before where some guys who weren’t playing say it’s because ‘coach doesn’t like me.’ Well, right now coach doesn’t know them, so everybody has a chance.”
The team has wasted no time since the hire of Bridges and on Thursday the Blue Devils hit the diamond for the first time under Bridges’ direction.
Until practices officially begin on Feb. 1, teams are allowed one class period to practice and Water Valley used its allotted 55 minutes on Thursday to get adjusted to one another, begin stretching out their arms by long tossing “at 60 percent” and running foul poles to begin getting back into shape.
“I thought I was in good shape,” joked senior Drew Pratt, hunched over after running his portion of foul poles.
Pratt isn’t the only one whose head is spinning, just ask Bridges.
“It’s spinning a little bit,” Bridges said, “but it will settle down.”
Water Valley officially begins its season on Feb. 19 with a home jamboree slate. (January 7, 2011, Page 6A)