When he first approached the Jackson principal and the athletics director about a job a few weeks ago, Ryan Duffey was just trying to get on base. He thought maybe he could catch on as an assistant coach on Mickey Moody’s staff.
Instead, Duffey scored a game-winner, advancing into the head coach’s position a little over a month after Moody vacated it to become a Jackson assistant principal. It’s a home run for Duffey, a product of Jackson’s class of 2006 who had been two years an assistant at Carrollton and six years an assistant at Heard County and longed to ply his trade in the friendly confines of Butts County.
“I wanted to be closer to this way, to be closer to family,” Duffey said. “I threw my name in the hat and hoped for the best.”
Duffey, a Brewton-Parker graduate who turns 31 on Aug. 2, said he intends on continuing the work ethic that Moody established.
“We’re going to work hard,” he said. “At Carrollton and Heard County, we had good ballplayers, but they were not always the most talented. We won a lot of games by outworking the other team. We won plenty of games that we had no business winning.”
The challenge for Duffey will be to continue the Red Devils’ winning ways as well — and that looked like a huge task, judging by the way the 2019 team finished its season. Duffey doesn’t consider Jackson’s crash-and-burn finish an indication that the up-and-coming players are any less talented than the ones who made the playoffs a habit. They just weren’t ready for the white-hot spotlight shone on them when Crisp County showed up for the first round of the Class AAA playoffs.
“The young guys got thrown in the fire quickly,” Duffey said. “Middle school, JV and varsity are completely different. It was a tough spot for them. Those kids had to be as nervous as they can be.”
Duffey couldn’t be blamed if he was nervous as well, getting his first head coaching job as the successor to a 400-win coach. But if he feels that way, you’ll never get him to concede it.
“No, sir,” he said. “It makes me excited. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys I worked under — Craig George over at Carrollton, a great friend and a mentor, and Trent Bianco at Heard County, who showed me good leadership. I’m excited and ready to get knee-deep into this thing.”
Duffey has been knee-deep in baseball for as long as he can remember. That his father, Larry, coached rec ball for many years might be one of the reasons why he is now a coach himself. He treasures the early memories when Larry introduced him to the game.
“He instilled in me a love for the game,” Duffey said. “We had a Velcro ball and a Velcro glove and we’d sit in the living room and he’d throw it to me.”
Duffey grew up to play first base and bat cleanup for the Red Devils, though he chuckles at the notion that anybody would’ve considered him a power hitter.
“There were good hitters ahead of me who made me look good,” he said. “When I think of power hitter, I think of somebody who hit the ball a lot better than I did.”
Duffey was a good judge of talent from an early age, and his honest self-assessment might have advanced his coaching career. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a first-round draft pick by any means,” he said.
That meant that he had to find another way to remain close to the game. Coaching was a natural fit.
“I like seeing kids succeed, having kids reach back and say, ‘Thanks, coach, for everything,’” Duffey said. “Just knowing that I’ve had kids who succeeded. I’m not doing it for the money and I’m not doing it for the fame.”
Expect the Red Devils to approach the game the same way they did under Moody, who was a fan of small ball.
“We’re going to be pretty close to the same,” Duffey said. “We’re going to put pressure on the defense. In high school, you put pressure on the defense and good things happen. ... Little things become big things. If we throw strikes and make the routine plays, we put ourselves in position to win.”