BLUEFIELD, Va. — Former Graham High School head baseball coach Willie Miller managed to see the best of it and the worst of it before his tenure with the G-Men program wrapped up this past spring.
It might’ve been a little nicer if the extremes could’ve been placed in a different order.
This past season, Graham went winless in a shortened schedule that was limited to Southwest District opponents and Bluefield. It was far cry from what the G-Men were hoping for in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in The Lost Season for all spring sports in Virginia and West Virginia.
In 2019, Graham made its first regional baseball tournament appearance since 1991 and, with so much talent returning, a state tournament appearance in 2020 did not seem unthinkable. The pandemic changed all that.
“I felt like we were moving in the right direction until COVID hit us and it kind of slowed down any momentum we had,” said Miller, who’d coached the G-Men since 2017.
“I’d coached those kids I had last year since they were in the sixth grade. I hate it that we lost that season.”
Personnel moves had already been afoot in Tazewell County before this season started. Ronnie Davis, who’d led the Richlands softball team to the 2019 Class 2 state softball championship, moved to Graham as an assistant football coach and did not — as some might have anticipated — take over the G-Girls this past spring.
Graham baseball’s 0-12 season in 2021 was not what Miller, or anybody else, wanted to see.
Miller — a private contractor — was not renewed. Davis — a career coach and educator — was appointed to the head coaches job. Head basketball coach Todd Baker was appointed assistant coach.
“I knew they’d hired Ronnie and they had Todd and they were both in the system and I think that’s kind of what they were looking for,” Miller said. “I think it was one of those things that was just going to happen.”
Miller said he completely understands why some administrators prefer working with coaches who are also full time teachers — and there’s no denying his successor’s qualifications. But due to losing the 2020 season, he said, he’ll always feel like he left with unfinished business.
“We didn’t do hardly anything last fall or last summer. I got them together for a couple weeks and we were going to do some fall ball and then they shut down all the facilities. When football moved to spring, we had 14 kids playing football and we had two weeks to get ready and some of them didn’t have that long,” Miller said.
““We had some pretty good kids coming but I knew we’d have our work cut out for us because we’d lost 12 seniors [from 2020]. We were playing better baseball. We should’ve beat Richlands both times we played them and lost by one run each time. We had Virginia High on the ropes a couple times and lost to them by one run in the districts. I wanted to come back because I knew I’d have some kids back I’d had for several years and we were going to have a bigger senior class.”
One thing he gets to take with him is the knowledge that he coached a cadre of Graham baseball players who attracted the attention of college recruiters — the first to do so at Graham in a while.
The one Miller alum who’s probably garnered the most ink since graduating is pitcher Howie Spencer, who played a thankless but significant role in Bluefield State’s astonishing Black College World Series championship this past spring. Spencer is currently on the Princeton WhistlePigs roster.
“I was really tickled when I saw he was playing for the WhistlePigs. I saw where he was in a big game the other night — I think it was with the Ridge Runners — and I texted him and he told me it seemed like he had everything working,” said Miller, who also regularly sees former catcher Cole Cline (now at West Virginia Tech) and others who helped the G-Men compete in baseball for the first time in decades.
“[Spencer] probably pitched more than anybody we had for three years. I think he took on a reliever role in college where he was pitching a little more often, just not throwing as many pitches. I think Howie’s arm was bothering him a little toward the end of the [Bluefield State] season. I’m hoping where he’s playing with the WhistlePigs that he’d had a little break ...that it gave his arm a little time to recuperate. If his arm is ready, he’s pretty solid,” said Miller, who hopes to see other Graham alumni on future Appalachian League squads.