Bigger and better

Published 12:02 pm Saturday, May 30, 2009

First-year Chilton County High baseball coach Josey Shannon’s first priority was to improve his team’s strength and conditioning, and pitcher Ben Handley was the paradigm.

Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Handley added 15 pounds of muscle and 8 mph to his fastball and became CCHS’s workhorse.

With Shannon insisting on hard work and allowing Handley to focus on pitching, the 16-year-old junior dominated and the Tigers made the Class 5A state playoffs for the first time since 2003.

And Handley and Shannon earned The Clanton Advertiser’s Player of Year and Coach of the Year honors.

“When Coach [and athletic director Brian] Carter told me I had the job, the first thing I did was pick up the phone and call Barry Baker [at Cornerstone Fitness and Wellness],” Shannon said. “He volunteered his time and his facility. You could definitely tell the difference in the team.”

Handley agreed.

“I felt like it helped me a lot,” he said. “I felt like I could throw any pitch I wanted to and in any spot.”

Handley throws a fastball in the mid-80s, a changeup and a curveball, but he and Shannon said the fastball-change combination is Handley’s key to success.

“The arm action is the key,” Shannon said. “With Benny, there’s no difference between the fastball and the changeup. That’s what makes it effective.”

Handley finished the year with an 8-5 record as the team’s primary pitcher against area competition and a batting average in the upper .200s as a designated hitter, but numbers don’t tell the whole story of his importance.

“He controlled games,” Shannon said. “When he was on the mound, everybody in the dugout felt like we had a chance to win.”

And the mound was the only defensive position Handley fielded. Handley has also played shortstop and third base in his varsity career, but Shannon said he wanted Handley to focus on pitching.

“I was trying to keep him healthy and strong by not playing him at other positions,” Shannon said. “I felt like Benny was stronger at the end of the season than at the beginning.”

Indeed. The Tigers lost eight games in a row at one point of the season but rebounded to earn a playoff berth.

Handley was a big part of the turnaround, both with his pitching ability and his leadership ability.

“I’m a hard worker and I love this sport, and I felt like people could look up to me,” Handley said.