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Former Unicoi County player Corn takes Columbia State to JUCO World Series

May 30th, 2014 9:01 pm by Trey Williams

Former Unicoi County player Corn takes Columbia State to JUCO World Series

Mike Corn is more convincing than most coaches when he says winning isn’t his primary concern.

That said, his teams sure do a lot of it.

The fourth-year Columbia State head baseball coach guided the Chargers to the JUCO World Series this week in Grand Junction, Colorado. Columbia State went 2-2 in the Series and will likely end up ranked anywhere from fourth to sixth in the nation.

Winning is contagious in Corn’s dugouts. He played on Charlie Baxter’s back-to-back state championship teams at Unicoi County in 1991-92 with the likes of Mark Banner and Terry Barnett.

During Corn’s nine years assisting Doug Jones at Tusculum, the Pioneers had eight winning seasons, including three South Atlantic Conference championships, two SAC Tournament titles and four NCAA D-II Tournament berths.

He was the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association’s JUCO coach of the year each of his first three seasons in Columbia, and would seem to be the favorite for a fourth straight award thanks to his performance this season.

“I’m lucky; I’ve had good players,” Corn said. “And I’ve had good mentors, from Coach Baxter to coach Jim Painter here, to coach Dave Schmotzer at Coker College and Doug Jones at Tusculum. … I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good coaches around me to teach me some of the right ways to do things.”

Corn assisted on the game’s final out as a sophomore shortstop when the Blue Devils beat Brentwood Academy for the ’91 title. Twenty-three years later, he managed a team to the JUCO World Series in what turned out to be Baxter’s last year at Unicoi County.

“I just hope us going to Grand Junction, you know, that Coach Baxter would be proud of an old Blue Devil,” Corn said with a chuckle. “Other than your Little League coaches, I guess Coach Baxter was one of the first true influences on organized baseball to me. I’m sure probably without even knowing it I do a lot of things that he taught us. … He’s been an influence to a lot of us guys.”

One of those is Corn’s former Unicoi teammate, Dave Shelton, who just completed his first season as Walters State’s head coach after spending parts of three decades assisting Ken Campbell. Corn and Shelton, who’s a year older, grew up together.

“Gosh, we did everything from trout fishing in South Indian Creek to deer hunting,” Corn said. “We played basketball against each other. We played Little League against each other. I mean, we were just small-town blue-collar kids.”

Corn’s Chargers beat Shelton’s Senators, 4-3, in the postseason this year, the latest chapter in a friendly rivalry that began in the late ‘80s.

“We’ve competed in everything from throwing eggs on Halloween at places we shouldn’t have been throwing,” Shelton said, “to throwing rocks, bass fishing, deer hunting.”

Beating Shelton was bittersweet.

“We talk every morning,” Corn said. “It certainly doesn’t make it (beating Walters State) more special. It almost makes it not as special, because you hate to feel like your causing any sadness to your best buddy. … 

“And I would’ve felt just as good for him if those guys had won the game and been able to move on. I don’t feel any competition with him. Those guys have a great program and will continue to have a great program. It’s about the young men on the field.”

Corn’s top players this season included right fielder Wes Neiderland and second baseman Tyler Fullerton, each of whom Corn said could get drafted next week.

His talented Chargers bounced back to win two games in the World Series after blowing a five-run lead and losing 6-5 to favorite Iowa Western in their opener. 

“We were up five to nothing. It hurts, for sure,” Corn said. “We had a mature, confident bunch of players. They were upset that they lost, but they weren’t disheartened. … They knew after being there for one game that they belonged.”

Midland (Texas) eliminated the Chargers with a 10-7 victory. Columbia State outscored opponents 36-26 while splitting four games.

“We played 35 innings … and we basically won every inning except two,” Corn said. “It takes a bunch of innings to win a tournament and only one or two to lose it.”

Grand Junction helps make the JUCO World Series memorable.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Corn said. “I can remember when we won the state championship and riding through the town of Erwin on the fire trucks and everybody being out. But when you see a town of, say, 70,000 or 80,000 like Grand Junction — I mean, there are signs everywhere, there are 10,000 people in the stands. Everywhere you go — the grocery store — it’s, ‘Oh, you guys are here with the JUCO.’ It’s pretty amazing. It’s probably the most autographs our players will ever sign.”

There was also a police escort capping the 25-hour bus ride back onto campus in Columbia, and a big turnout, including all the dignitaries, greeted the team.

“It was an emotional time stepping off that bus,” Corn said.

The gratifying season brings it all back home for a baseball man like corn, whose father Johnny played at Erwin (class of ’60).

“My dad was a big baseball guy,” Corn said. “We watched the Braves. I can remember my dad — when I was just a young kid playing under the bleachers — playing down there in the old Greeneville stadium.”

Indeed, those times at Legion Field are probably where Corn’s desire to be a father figure in a dugout began taking root, and it’s blossomed in to victories on and off the field.

“I don’t feel like I deserve anything that’s happening,” Corn said. “For whatever reason, the Big Man up above is blessing me with some success. I don’t think I’m doing anything different than anybody else. … I’m gonna certainly be humble and accept the gifts.

“And hopefully I can just make a difference in these young men’s lives. That’s much more important than winning.”

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