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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)


Two Hardin Valley Academy baseball coaches are under investigation by state and local authorities after they were accused of intentionally and repeatedly hitting players with pitches during a practice last week.

Head coach Joe Michalski and assistant coach Zach Luther have been placed on paid leave from their coaching duties by the school system, according to schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington. Both are continuing their teaching roles at the school, she 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 an 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.

The Knox County Sheriff's Office also has opened an investigation, according to spokeswoman Martha Dooley. She declined to discuss the nature of the investigation.

Michalski and Luther did not respond to email requests for comment.

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.

According to Super, the players were forced to stand in the batter's box while Luther 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.

The drill was prompted by a player who stepped out of the batter's box during a March 8 scrimmage against Webb School to avoid being hit by a pitch, according to Super. No one was allowed to leave the batter's box during practice until they were hit by a pitch, Super said.

"What makes me angry is that my son has had two concussions since May of last year," Super said. "What if they would have accidentally hit him the head? At that point, we are talking about double vision and cognitive functioning, not whether he has a career playing at Vanderbilt."

Green has committed to play baseball for Vanderbilt University in 2018.

Super also alleged in a letter dated March 10 to the school principals and interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas that Michalski has "used intimidation" including "bullying, pejorative name-calling, public humiliation and now physical abuse while coaching the baseball team."

In a time line she provided to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee, Super pointed to a string of incidents dating back to February 2015. She accuses Michalski of pressuring an injured player to pitch against advice from a trainer in March 2016, holding players on the field 40 minutes after a 9-2 win against Riverdale High School in April and yelling at players during tryouts in August for encouraging each other for good plays.

"I am not alone in my concerns," Super wrote in her letter. "There are many parents who feel as strongly as I do that Joe Michalski and Zach Luther should be removed from their coaching positions. At the end of the day, these are children aged 14-18 who are being exposed to emotional and physical abuse and something finally needs to be done."

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 the DCS, according to Neely's 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.

DCS "did interview my wife and she voiced her opinion that she would like to see him step down as head coach," he said. "Of course that didn't happen and the administration at Hardin Valley kind of brushed it off and let him keep his job even though some of the other things he had also done showed that he didn't have any character."

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.

Other parents on Wednesday expressed their support for the coaches, including writing letters to the superintendent and visiting with DCS officials. Players allowed DCS to evaluate them for injuries, according to Shane Parks, whose son Drew is a senior infielder and pitcher.

"There isn't any mental or child abuse going on at practice," Parks said. "This is a mama trying to get a coach fired, and we don't appreciate it right here before the season."

Parks said the ball used in the drill was not a regulation baseball but a hard rubber ball used for drills.

"It is intended for this specific kind of drill," he said. "High schools and colleges around the country are known to teach this drill - not that everyone accepts it. But we don't have an issue with it and (the coach) was not trying to abuse my son."

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

"I ask my sons every day about practice, direct conversations with coaches, how coaches direct and interact with the team, and I've never heard anything from them that makes me concerned as a parent," wrote Bob Leo, who has one son on the team and another who graduated in 2015.

"Are they hard on them? Yes - all good coaches are hard on players at times. Do they like it all the time? No, but I can honestly say that my kids have all benefited from their time under the coaches, teachers and administrators at HVA."

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March 16, 2017


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