How Kaylin Chesney rebuilt the program after 7 years

Chris Smith didn’t have to think twice to find his favorite memory from the 2022 baseball season. It scored Austin-East’s first run of the year against Sequoyah on April 4.

“When I scored the first time, everyone was so excited,” said the Roadrunners catcher. “Everyone was in the dugout and screamed. We didn’t even know we could do that.”

Austin-East hadn’t fielded a baseball team for a full season in seven years. Coach Kaylin Chesney graduated from Austin-East in 2000 and said the school never played baseball there, but based on his research on the history, he believes there was a team from the mid-2000s through 2015.

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Chesney never played organized baseball but fell in love with the sport when his sons got involved in touring baseball. He volunteered to be an assistant baseball coach at Vine Middle School — one of the schools Austin-East serves — when he realized the talented eighth graders would either have to quit the sport or go to another high school to continue playing.

“I’ve told them several times someone has to start this. Someone has to be brave enough to be the first to get out of here,” Chesney said. “Even if we lose, even if people are laughing, you guys are out here doing it. You compete every week. That was the biggest message.”

Build from scratch

After years without a team, Austin-East’s former baseball field has been converted into an additional practice field for the football and soccer teams. One of Chesney’s most challenging tasks at the start of the 2022 season was restoring the facility to a playable state.

“When we started mowing the grass, we saw a white spot in the middle, and it was actually a base,” laughed Chesney. “The grass and everything was just so thick that it completely hid it.”

With help from the City of Knoxville Parks and Recreation Department, they were able to turn the field into a usable practice ground, although the team couldn’t play games on it — the field only has dirt around each base and isn’t connected in the traditional diamond shape. Field maintenance encountered another obstacle when The facility was destroyed by a truck on January 21.

“The kids asked why. Why would anyone do that?” said Chesney. “That was one of the lessons: you really can’t worry about that. You can do what you can control, they did, and the support we’ve had has been phenomenal.”

Chesney also had to source equipment for his players, many of whom hadn’t played baseball in years. A 2020 University of Ohio study estimates that baseball gear costs an average of $615 for a single player. Austin-East is a Title 1 school and 63% of its students were certified in free or discounted lunch programs in 2020-21 according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The program received a donation of gloves from the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother that supports youth athletic programs in underserved communities. Still, Chesney said the initial investment in the program, from holdalls to batting helmets, fell between $10,000 and $13,000.

“We’ve been able to raise a lot of funds and make our training shirts,” Chesney said. “My wife has a cricket so we did it with a heat press one night and ironed all the shirts. We designed our Ole Miss uniforms and that’s what gets kids excited.”

learn basics

Chesney started the season with a 20-man squad. Only five were juniors or seniors and 10 were freshmen. Even the team’s most experienced players had not played organized baseball in at least two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Some had never played at all.

“What I’m saying is, I think it goes back to playing outside, when you’re throwing little rocks in the creek,” Chesney said. “I’m like a man, ‘Have you ever thrown stones before?’ Just throw it like a rock, it’s all about breaking down the throws, the stages and everything that goes with throwing.

Chesney said he faces a learning curve in figuring out how much his team is capable of and what areas of development he needs to focus on with the players’ little base knowledge.

An Austin-East player catches a ball during the first baseball game “Smoky Mountain Rivalry” at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tennessee on Saturday, April 16, 2022.

“I wanted to move so fast because I knew we were going to lag behind, so we worked on double plays and bunt coverage, but I had to realize I can’t work to get two if we don’t catch the ball can clean,” he said. “I can say that we didn’t have to break bad habits. You learn to do things right.”

Chesney said growth since the start of the season has been dramatic.

“It went from an 8U team to a lower-level high school team,” Chesney said. “There’s still a lot of ground to go, but we’ve managed to get stuck in innings to finish games.”

find the joy

Austin-East finished the season with a 0-9 record, losing their final game in the play-in round of the District 5-3A tournament, 13-0 to Fulton. Chesney said he went into the season knowing the Roadrunners would struggle, so he stressed enjoying the small wins for the players.

“I tell the children that the victories will come. The benefit of losing is that you learn how to lose and take it with a grain of salt and move on,” he said. “We will just keep working to get better. It was just about them getting through the season.”

A baseball program is also interesting for students who never played sports in high school. Smith, who also plays soccer and basketball, is the only member of the squad playing another sport.

Austin-East huddles together before the first baseball game “Smoky Mountain Rivalry” at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tennessee on Saturday, April 16, 2022.

Freshman Lashawn Trujillo, who was selected to the All-District 5-3A team, said the best thing about playing is his relationships with his teammates. It also inspired him to try his hand at football – Chesney serves as the wide receivers coach for the football team.

“My favorite is probably the coaching staff and everyone out here just having fun,” said Trujillo. “I just love to play and while it can be a bit stressful at some points, we have fun and keep getting better.”

Despite the winless record, Chesney sees the season as a complete success. He has seen players’ passion for the sport grow and some are now looking for opportunities to continue playing in the club leagues in the summer.

“We have kids who are doing something after school for the first time, and that’s probably been the most rewarding year for me,” he said. “Now the kids are like, ‘Hey Coach, I’m thinking about getting my own glove.’ Even bats, all that stuff they didn’t even bother with at first, now they care enough that they’re trying to get their own stuff.

Contact Emily Adams at eaadams@gannett.com or on Twitter @eaadams6.

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