When asked what he felt were his best attributes were as a coach, Merritt Ainslie made one of the best comments this old sportswriter has ever heard. He said, “I think it’s leadership. I’ve seen and been a part of good leadership all my life. If I can lead 18-40 year-old men into battle to risk their lives, I think I should be able to lead young boys onto the baseball field to help them become men.” He spent two tours in Afghanistan so that’s not bragging folks. It’s simply the truth.
You may not always agree with his calls, philosophy, or coaching, but one thing’s for sure when talking to this man. He’s concerned about the kids and has character. That should never come into question. The once special education teacher is now a part of what was once referred to as DCT that helps young people enter into the workforce around the county as part of their curriculum. That takes leadership too and his obvious desire to help all those students at Morgan County makes him a true treasure that we should all be proud of.Ainslie comes into his third year as the head baseball coach and is now sporting two Region 8-AAA Championships under his belt. This year’s trophy was secured a couple of weeks ago with the Dogs now leading the pack with a 10-1 record with only a three-game series with East Jackson this coming week remaining on the Region schedule. The results of those games will not alter the outcome of the Region standings and will give the Dogs another first-round series at home with teams from 7-AAA looming. Morgan still has a couple of non-region games slated to round out the regular season. No matter how you look at it, the Dogs have had a spectacular two-year run. It’s one that can’t be rivaled in recent memory.
A large part of the conversation with Ainslie centered around consistency, of which he is no stranger. “I think all high schools and any other programs are looking for consistency. Coaching styles can differ and I’m not comparing mine to anyone before me. From parents, those investing money, allowing assistant coaches to coach, and all the things that go along with it, the most important word I talk to everyone about is consistency. People want strong leadership with a vision and consistency. They want people to know what’s expected of them. Am I perfect at that? No. But I hope that as a role model of consistency as a parent, husband, Dad, coach, and teacher, people can see that in me. You can have a skilled team and not be very good. The most important thing a teacher or coach can provide is a path.”
When asked what is the difference from four years ago as a first year assistant baseball coach at Morgan County, he said, “Every good team has good players, but a good support staff, great assistant coaches, and superior support from the Athletic Director and parents makes a huge difference. We have progressed, in my mind, where we have all of those things that have fit into the puzzle.”
This year’s squad has been led on the field by some familiar name from one year ago. The starting rotation has been lights-out in Region contests. The addition of Jacob Anderson as the third starter has given the Dogs one of the most dominating staffs in the state to this point in the season. Sophomore Ethan Stamps leads the team in Region play with an ERA of 0.75 and has a record of 4-0 while striking out 36 batters in a team-leading 28 innings while walking a miniscule two batters. Anderson comes in at 3-0 and a 1.20 ERA. Lane is 3-1. Had it not been for one bad outing against a hot team, his ERA would be much lower. It stands at 2.99 against Region competition. All three pitchers will return for a third round of action for the Dogs next year. That’s mighty encouraging. Ainslie said about his hosses on the mound, “These guys have been outstanding. The best thing about this staff is they all return for another year. Hunter Lane has lost one Region contest in the past two years. He’s been very consistent for us and is a guy we know we can count one.”
Offensively, MOCO is seeing some outstanding performances at the plate from this year’s group. Lane is leading the team with a .409 batting average followed by Anderson at .387, Stamps at .364, Ferguson at .361, and shortstop Hunter Christian with a .346 mark. Stamps and Cofer are leading the team with 11 RBI’s each while Anderson leads the team in extra base hits at five. The team is hitting .329 in Region games so far. (All of these stats are from Region games only).
Ainslie summarized things like this, “As a coach, you always look at things after the season and self-reflect on yourself as a coach and the team too. I may have put too much emphasis on winning the Region a year ago. We hadn’t done that in some time, and it was something we really wanted to hang our hats on. This year, we’ve tried to downplay a Region Championship a little. We felt with all the talent we had returning, we should win the region if the guys went out and did what they were capable of. People don’t remember you for how many games you won necessarily, but how well you did in the playoffs. May is what we’re shooting for this year. We don’t want the team to be satisfied with winning the Region. We’re all excited about what we’ve accomplished, but the players are looking for more in the playoffs this year.”