By emulating the Cavaliers’ baseball program, Carroll County native Ronald Mankins has guided Galax’s baseball team to a state championship.
Mankins, a star baseball player at Carroll County until his graduation in 1997, helped lead the Maroon Tide to the Group A Division I state title June 9 with a 9-8 victory over Holston. Mankins, who played for former Carroll County head coach Greg Nelson and was in the program during legendary head coach Bill Worrell’s final years at the school, wanted to bring the same kind of environment to Galax.
“I can still remember making the JV team in the ninth grade and that was Coach Worrell’s last year (1994), the year they won the region and he retired. I can remember playing in his program and being around the varsity guys at practice,” Mankins said. “And to be honest that is the kind of environment I wanted at Galax, that kind of feel where the younger kids come and watch the varsity kids play. They look at those varsity guys and tell themselves, ‘I want to be in that uniform.’ That is what I have always had a mental picture of in my mind, the kind of baseball program Carroll had is what I want at Galax.”
Mankins played one year of JV ball under now Carroll County head coach Joe Tompkins and another year of JV ball under Nelson and assistant Rick Nester. He played his varsity ball under Nelson after Worrell had retired.
“I had a message from Coach Nelson when I got back from church Sunday and he called me and congratulated me. That meant a lot to me,” Mankins said.
Heading into the 2012 state tournament, Galax was probably an afterthought to most as it finished the regular season with a 10-8 record then dropped its opening game of the Mountain Empire District Tournament to Fort Chiswell. That loss dropped the Maroon Tide to a No. 2 seed in the region tournament.
After receiving a first-round bye, Galax won its regional semifinal and final. Then in the state tournament the Maroon Tide turned into the Cardiac Kids. After rallying from a 6-0 deficit in the first inning after committing four errors, Galax battled back to beat Clintwood 11-7 in a game that took three days to play due to rain. Mankins’ boys then fought valiantly before winning an epic 11-inning battle over Rappahannock by a 4-3 score. In the championship Galax again won by one run, topping Holston 9-8 for the state crown.
“We had eight one-run games this year. We lost nine games by a combined 20 runs. When we started 1-6, three of those losses were by one run,” Mankins said. “A lot of people have asked me if I saw this run coming. I can honestly say I thought we had the talent all along to get there. I tried to tell the guys that all year.”
One of the biggest things that held the Maroon Tide back early on was injuries, Mankins said. In fact, Galax did not start the entire nine players it anticipated to start the year until the last regular season game.
“Austin Pack missed the first month of the season with fluid on his knees and John Alouf had a banged up knee all year and missed a couple of games. Travis Cockerham had been our three-hole hitter for three years in a row, but he had a back issue that kept him from playing anything but defense until April 20. Then Nick Davis broke his wrist on March 31 at Carroll and wasn’t cleared to play until May 18,” Mankins said. “Something I preached to the kids from the day we played Carroll County, we had three starters out at that point, and I told them we would be healthy at the end of the year, and to play championship ball you have to be healthy at the end, not the start. We didn’t want them to be discouraged or worried, we just told them we would be healthy at the end of the year and that’s what happened. Everybody started gelling and playing at a high level at the same time.”
Mankins has certainly taken the Galax program a long way since taking over as head coach six years ago. Just a few short years ago, the Maroon Tide program only had enough players for an 8th grade team and a varsity team. Before this season, Galax had improved to the point where it had been near .500 for a few years after losing many games by the slaughter rule.
“There were numerous games we just went five innings and went home. We weren’t competing at all. The last few years I felt there were very few games we didn’t compete in at all. I just preach all the time fundamental baseball, and if you do that you have a chance to compete every game,” Mankins said. “These kids that just graduated, the first year I took over as head coach we started an 8th grade team. These boys were 7th graders on the first 8th grade team Galax ever had. They are the first group to go start to finish through the program, so it feels really good. It was better than I could even imagine. I can’t say I haven’t dreamed about these boys doing that and what it would feel like, but I think everything I had in mind fell short of holding that trophy and going down Main Street. It was one of the top sports highlights of my life, just a great feeling.”
After graduating from Carroll County, Mankins played four years of baseball at King College. After graduation, he began his coaching career at Carroll as Tompkins allowed him to volunteer in the program. The next year he secured a teaching job at Woodlawn School and coached Carroll’s 9th grade team for two years and assisted with the JV team for one season before moving on to Galax. He credits Tompkins with helping him make the move.
“There was a workday toward the end of school and I think Joe Tompkins gave me a blessing, just out of the blue asked me about it. And he told me if I wanted a head job those boys just needed somebody to give them the time and effort,” Mankins said. “He said, ‘Take a chance.’ So I just came to Galax with ideas from Carroll. When you grow up in Carroll you just grow up loving baseball and want to play it. You just love the game of baseball, play it hard and enjoy playing it. And I can honestly say that is what the kids are doing right now.”