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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)


An attorney representing two Hardin Valley Academy baseball coaches under investigation by state and local authorities called allegations that the coaches mistreated players "blatantly false."

"On behalf of these fine young coaches, we would demand that the record be set straight insofar as these false allegations which are being advanced by a singular disgruntled parent with a singular, venomous agenda," attorney M. Jeffrey Whitt of Whitt, Cooper, Trant & Hedrick said in an email late Wednesday to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee.

Whitt said head coach Joe Michalski and assistant Zach Luther had retained his firm earlier Wednesday. Both were placed on paid leave from their coaching duties by the school system after a parent complained that they had intentionally and repeatedly hit players with pitches during practice.

Luther was placed on leave with pay on March 13 and Michalski on March 15. Both are continuing their teaching duties at the school, said school spokeswoman Carly Harrington. The Department of Children's Services and the Knox County Sheriff's Office have opened an investigation into the incident.

Whitt on Thursday argued that the players were hit with rubber balls during a common practice drill.

"Every coach will tell you it's a legitimate drill," Whitt said. "But it's not child abuse. We've got to get this thing completed as soon as we can."

Whitt said the coaches and attorneys will meet with Department of Children's Services officials. Some parents and players have already met with state officials voluntarily to express support for Michalski and Luther, he said.

This is the third time Michalski has been placed on leave or suspended by the school district after previously being investigated for injuries to another player during practice two years ago and for a public intoxication arrest in February 2014, according to documents in his personnel file obtained through a USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee public records request.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services opened its investigation on March 10 into the latest allegations, according to spokesman Rob Johnson. He declined to say who filed the complaint, but it came one day after the practice where Sheri Super, the mother of junior shortstop Ryder Green, said her son and others were hit with baseballs.

Knox County Sheriff's spokeswoman Martha Dooley declined to discuss the nature of that agency's investigation.

Video of the practice taken from the bleachers and provided to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee by Super appears to show a coach striking players in the batter's box with pitches repeatedly.

Related: Baseball Coach Investigated for Pitching at Players

According to Super, the players were forced to stand in the batter's box while Luther, a former University of Tennessee player, threw the pitches and Michalski watched from first base during the drill. A photo provided by Super of a player's back shows red marks on his lower left side.

Other parents who have complained about Michalski's behavior include Ken Neely, the father of former Hardin Valley pitcher and current University of Tennessee player Will Neely.

Will Neely was treated for second-degree burns on his hands two years ago after Michalski forced players to perform bear crawls on the hot blacktop track, according to his father. The injury cost Neely the opportunity to compete in a showcase in New York, his father said.

Michalski was investigated by the school system, placed on leave from his coaching duties and ultimately suspended for four games during the 2014-15 season. Michalski told school district officials that the injuries were not burns, but caused by friction on the track surface, according to a letter from then-Superintendent Jim McIntyre outlining his suspension.

"Your poor judgment during baseball drills caused injury to a student athlete, which is (a) violation of Knox County Board of Education Policy BK, Civility Code," McIntyre wrote, also barring Michalski from attending any of the games during his suspension.

The doctor who treated Neely's hands also filed a complaint with DCS, according to his father. Johnson of DCS would not comment on the earlier investigation.

"It's very clear that he has shown some bad judgment over the years on several different things," Ken Neely said.

In February 2014, Michalski was given a written reprimand and placed on three days of administrative leave without pay after he was charged with public intoxication. The charge was dismissed after payment of court costs, according to a Feb. 18, 2014, letter from McIntyre in his personnel file.

At least six other parents said they sent letters to the school district and later provided them to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee.

"My son has been in this baseball program for four years and to this day has never been physically or verbally abused by any of the coaching staff," wrote Tonya and Sammy Johnson. "We think they are terrific coaches and they want our boys to succeed in the classroom and on the field."

Added parents Michael and Rebecca Cash: "My main problem with all this is the abuse claims. If I was aware of all (these) long-standing forms of abuse on my son, there is no way I would sit and let it continue. This leads me to believe this is nothing more than a witch hunt because they do not agree with his coaching. If they were so concerned about their child watching the drill, I am sure they would have stopped it immediately."

Carson-Newman University head baseball coach Tom Griffen wrote in an email to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee that while the philosophy on whether to take a hit from a pitch or avoid it in a game may differ between coaches, the drill is still very common.

"When it comes to the drill in question, getting hit by the pitch, I have worked/trained/practiced this for 27 years," Griffen wrote. "We do it in our youth camps to train (players on) how to protect yourself (from) a ball coming at you.

"I understand that some coaches on all levels use the hit by pitch mindset to get on base ... Whatever your philosophy of the 'hit by pitch' is as a coach, it has to be done in training. How to turn to avoid being hit on the knee, elbow and chin."

Donna Cronwell, whose son played baseball for Hardin Valley between 2010 and 2013 under a previous coach, said Thursday that extreme coaching methods have long been a problem in the program. Michalski was an assistant during her son's time as an outfielder and utility player for the team.

Cornwell said she tried several times to reach out to school administrators about the treatment of players by coaches, but was stymied.

"I'm sure whatever Michalski is doing now, it was OK'd and condoned by the administration," she said. "And if he's doing this kind of abusive stuff, he's learned it from past coaches. It's condoned. It's always been condoned."

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March 17, 2017


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