When Zach Stephens hit 17 home runs for Soddy-Daisy last year, many high school baseball observers felt it was a Soddy-Daisy record that would stand for years.
They also felt the Trojans would have a hard time replacing the offense provided by Stephens, now a first-year starter for Tennessee Tech. But outfielders James Fowlkes and Talon Harris have combined for 33 homers going into the Trojans’ District 5-AAA opener today at Walker Valley.
“Hard work in the offseason pays off,” Soddy-Daisy coach Jared Hensley said of the dynamite duo.
Fowlkes, at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds a stark contrast to the burly Stephens, has 17 homers. The even more slender Harris has 16.
“Last year when it was said and done, I sat down and looked at our numbers and I didn’t see anybody putting up numbers like that for a long time,” Hensley said. “I knew James was going to be big for us, but nobody could have expected him to do what he has done. And I don’t think anybody in their right mind would ever have thought Talon would do what he has done.”
Baylor’s Gene Etter, one of the area’s coaching deans, said such combo slugging is quite rare and never has happened in his program. The closest occasion was Curt Keene setting a school record with 17 homers in the late 1990s and teammate Matt Nunley repeating that feat the following year.
“To have two guys do that in the same year is incredible,” Etter said.
Ooltewah had a similar combination five years ago. Kyler Burke, who would become a first-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres, hit 20 round-trippers and catcher Tim Marcum hit 14 in 2006. Blake McDade, another senior on that team, had a monster junior year but hit more for average as a senior.
“You have to wonder how much time [Fowlkes and Harris] spent working in the offseason,” said Lookout Valley coach David Dinger, who had a similar pair — Jeremy Reed and Andy Cresswell — in 1998.
Reed hit an area-record 22 homers in a 78-RBI season, and Cresswell added 10. It was untouched turf for Dinger, who despite his name generally emphasizes the bunt and the hit-and-run to advance runners.
“You got to where you thought one of them hitting a home run was going to happen, especially if the pitcher wasn’t hitting his spots,” Dinger recalled. “It got boring as a coach. You worried more about not getting anybody thrown out in front of them.”
Fowlkes was Soddy-Daisy’s basketball MVP but spent every possible moment not devoted to academics or hoops in either the weight room or the Trojans’ indoor hitting facility, and Henley said the offseason program was a definite boost to the Lee University signee.
Leadoff batter Harris was another story. The junior had a higher-than-expected number of strikeouts early in the season but erupted as a hitter after a talk with Hensley.
“Take away the home runs and he is an ideal leadoff man. If he gets on first, he’s usually at third before I give the first sign,” Hensley said. “Early in the year, though, he was trying to be the prototypical leadoff guy — being patient and trying to see a lot of pitches. We finally had a conversation, and I told him if he saw a pitch he liked to have at it.”
Harris started as a freshman but, after shoulder surgery, was relegated to courtesy and pinch running as a sophomore.
He never really gave much thought to hitting home runs, even though he started playing as a 3-year-old and was in the 5- and 6-year-old leagues the following year. He has more than doubled his career homer total with this year’s output.
“I don’t try to hit home runs. It’s more about getting on base. I look for something I can drive,” he said.
Fowlkes had seven high school career homers entering this season. A midseason slump last year provided the offseason work ethic.
“That slump really bothered me,” he said. “I put on about 15 pounds and a little muscle in the weight room, and I spent a lot of time in the hitting facility.”
He was hard-pressed to explain his power surge beyond that.
“I want to make good hard contact,” he said. “Contact has been my emphasis.”
Opponents who have played at Soddy-Daisy know the wind can be a friend, but Hensley said the wind might be a hitter’s friend one day and his worst enemy the next.
“Some days you get a wind blowing out and you can muscle a pop-up out, but then there are other days when the wind is coming hard off Mowbray Mountain and Superman would be hard pressed to hit one out,” he said.
At least half of both Trojans sluggers’ home runs have come on the road.
“I have hit eight at home, and I really thought there was only one that was [wind-aided],” Fowlkes said.
“I know Fowlkes has hit three at Red Bank, which is a good-sized facility,” Hensley said, “and we went to Knoxville for a tournament, and Talon hit three or four up there.”
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...