By TREY WILLIAMS
Colby Backus’ baseball career at Daniel Boone ended in nightmarish fashion due to the coronavirus pandemic, but his college destination still turned out to be a dream come true.
Backus signed on Monday with Walters State, a perennial power in junior college.
“I’m super-excited to get up there and be able to work with the coaches,” Backus said, “and just be the best baseball player I can be.”
Backus initially heard from Walters State at the beginning of his junior season from assistant coach Skyler Barnett after attending a camp there. Barnett asked if he had any offers.
“I said I didn’t have any, and he said one was coming,” Barnett said. “And after that I kind of didn’t hear from ‘em for about a year and a half.”
He still heard from Barnett, but he’d taken the Milligan University job in the offseason. Backus strongly considered Milligan, but eventually committed to Roane State.
But Walters State head coach Dave Shelton saw him play against Elizabethon in what turned out to be a week-long season, and Backus’ showing against second-round Texas Rangers draft pick Evan Carter might’ve helped seal the deal.
“I think I went 2-for-4 off of Evan Carter, and obviously he’s a second round draft pick,” Backus said. “I may have hit one line-drive and then caught one in the outfield. I don’t remember anything super spectacular that I did.”
Certainly it was easy for Shelton to see the potential in Backus, especially when considering he got a late start in baseball due to playing basketball.
So Shelton called Boone coach Scott Hagy a couple of days later when the Trailblazers were on what turned out to be an abbreviated trip to Nashville.
“I ended up committing to Roane State and then decommitting from Roane State because it didn’t feel like the right fit,” Backus said. “When Coach Shelton called I was so excited, because that was the place I’d been looking to go to since the 10th grade. It was almost like my dream baseball college.”
Walters State won the national championship in 2005 under Science Hill alumnus Ken Campbell and finished runner-up in 2018 under Shelton, who played at Unicoi County and Milligan. Walters State has a rich tradition of producing high MLB draft picks, including Landon Knack (Science Hill), who pitched on the 2018 runner-up team and was drafted 60th overall also last month by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Backus, who has sustained injuries to both shoulders, noted how Knack and another Science Hill-Walters State alum that was drafted high, Reed Hayes, were well taken care of while injured at the Morristown college.
“I think they’re really good at taking injured players and making them the best possible player they can be,” Backus said. “I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve had shoulder surgery, and I think Walters State is the place that can get the best out of me. …
“I think all the baseball that they play down there and the expertise in the coaching, it really like makes people click, whether it’s at the plate or pitching.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Backus said he’s projected to play a corner outfield position or first base. His bat is surely what most intrigues Shelton, who has often said he’ll err on the side of offense.
“We are excited about getting Colby down here at Walters State,” Shelton said. “We feel he has a unique combination of power and speed and has a very high ceiling as a player. But not only are we excited about him as a player, we know he is a great kid and a hard worker, and we love having kids like him in our program. Now that he is healthy, the sky is the limit for him.”
Backus said he felt like the sky was the limit for the Trailblazers this past season. The roster included three other players expected to be productive players in college, Cade Elliott (Tennessee), Ryan Haney (Milligan) and Brody Goodman (Roane State).
“I would’ve loved to have been able to play out the season,” Backus said. “It just kind of stinks that it was cut off short, because I feel like our team not only played the game well, but we also had great team chemistry. We all got along. It just really felt like we were brothers in the dugout. You hate to lose that.”
Of course, Backus’ hot state proved to be invaluable, as his high school coach noted.
“He’s a big, strong, extremely athletic kid,” Hagy said, “and once he concentrates on just baseball, he’s gonna do nothing but get better. He’s the kind of guy Dave Shelton looks for and he’s gonna fit in really well down there.”
Backus was quick to credit Hagy, who was in his first year in the Boone dugout, as well as Trailblazers assistant Tucker McPherson and Hagy’s predecessor, Rob Hoover.
“Coach Hoover was obviously my first coach at Boone,” Backus said, “and he was a great mentor, both in sports and also making sure sports wasn’t No. 1, because God comes first. He always made sure we knew how he felt about that.
“And Coach Hagy did great this year in the transition of coaches and just making sure all the players didn’t completely abandon all the work they’d put in. He kept pushing us even though he was a new coach and really didn’t know us much. I think he got a lot of good out of this year and we were gonna end up doing really well under him.
“Coach McPherson graduated (at Science Hill) with my older brother (Chad). So I’ve known him since he was 12 years old. He’s helped me a lot with work ethic. He’s one of the hardest workers I know. He also went and played at Milligan.”
One of Backus’ favorite memories from Boone was hitting a long home run in 2018 off Jackson McDavid (East Tennessee State) at Dobyns-Bennett in his first game after transferring from Providence Academy.
“He left a fastball up,” Backus said. “It was one of the few mistakes he made. I was just able to capitalize on it. It felt really good, especially transferring from Providence to Boone and it being my first game. I was pretty nervous, but it really helped me settle in.”
Being an hour from home should help Backus settle in smoothly at Walters State. The three-hour drive to Roane State wasn’t ideal, said Backus, who also thinks highly of Barnett at Milligan.
But getting a chance to be Senator was the vote of confidence on which was waiting.
“I feel extremely blessed for this opportunity,” Backus said. “I’m excited to get down there and go work my hardest and see what it can do.”