Dynasty of Dixie

Dynasty of Dixie

March 1st, 2013 Abby Hill in Chatter

George Koontz sits behind a hefty wooden desk in an office off Holtzclaw Avenue. The middle aged man with white hair and goatee practices mostly health care law at Kennedy, Koontz & Farinash, a practice he co-founded. The curtains are heavy, the room is filled with multiple book cases and the walls are dressed with diplomas. His office is incredibly organized, complete with a yellow legal pad open to an empty page, ready to take notes.

This office is his Daily Planet. But, his alter ego, maybe the one he is most known for, is being the founder and general manager of the Chattanooga Cyclones Baseball Program.

Koontz founded the program in 1993 to assist the area's young and dedicated baseball players in developing their skills and to expose them to college coaches as well as professional scouts. And since then he has spent countless hours on less-than-manicured infields in thousands of baseball parks. "About that time, select baseball was in its infancy in Chattanooga, and some organizations began to pop up," says Koontz.

"It is unusual if anyone on our 18-year-old team does not have a career in baseball. 95 percent or more of our older boys continue their baseball careers in college."- George Koontz

"I was asked to help with one, but later decided to do my own thing." He adds with a smile, "And it has kind of grown since."

Since its inception, the program has become the premiere select baseball organization in the Chattanooga area. Last summer, the Cyclones had six summer teams and three fall teams. Every team is divided by age beginning with 13-year-olds and ending with 18-year-olds, or high school seniors. The teams travel to different tournaments and college campuses across the Southeast, mostly trying to gain attention from college coaches.

Winning is, of course, on the mind of Koontz and the coaching staff, but player development is the main goal of the program. In addition to having regular practices and playing games, the players have mandatory conditioning and yoga sessions all year round. The players are also provided with extra, more specific coaching sessions if they so choose.

The Cyclones program is tough and demands a lot of time and money. "I tell parents that this is not for everyone," says Koontz. "If your kid does not have a burning desire to play baseball then this is probably not the place for him. There is a lot of travel and a lot of practice involved. We push kids harder than anyone else. And if they don't have that passion it becomes work instead of fun."

Because of the intensity of the program and the commitment it requires, the boys learn a lot more than baseball skills during their time with the Cyclones. Often these boys are as young as 13 when they begin playing in the program and they have to decide how much effort they want to give. Koontz knows this and he says that another takeaway from playing in this program is self-discipline. "Self-discipline will help in life after baseball," says Koontz. "They have to give up things to have success. There are a lot of decisions they will have to make if this is what they want to do. And most importantly, I want each boy to know that if you work hard and do things the right way, there will be a reward on the other side."

In addition to negotiating insurance and HIPAA cases at his hefty desk, Koontz is running his baseball program. He understands sacrificing things for baseball. Koontz commits 1,000 hours per year to the Cyclones. He coaches a team, goes to training sessions, travels to campuses with them and is on the phone quite a bit making connections and getting the attention of college coaches. Between baseball and work, he does not have time for much else. He is the mastermind behind this program.

Koontz has been a fan of America's game his entire life. As a life-long Yankees fan he has many childhood memories of traveling to watch his hero, Mickey Mantle. The numbers are what he loves most about the game. "Even as a kid I was consumed with batting averages and on-base percentages," says Koontz. "And as a coach, knowing numbers helps with knowing what buttons to push to have success."

The success of the Cyclones illustrates how well Koontz knows these buttons. Chattanooga is a sports-centered city and select baseball programs like this are not unusual. However, this program's focus on getting the attention of college coaches is what sets it apart.

"It is unusual if anyone on our 18-year-old team does not have a career in baseball," says Koontz. "95 percent or more of our older boys continue their baseball careers in college. Our mission is to help young players with a passion, a sincere desire to play baseball to achieve their goals. There are some gifted enough to play professionally, but our main mission is to get their college paid for."

Cory Gearrin

A graduate of Rhea County High School and played for the Cyclones in the fall of 2005. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Braves in 2007. In 2011, Gearrin was called up to the big leagues to be an active relief pitcher for the Braves.

Mike Minor

A left-handed starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. The Braves selected Minor in the first round of the draft in 2009. Minor played a portion of one summer and one fall season for the Cyclones.

Mitchell Boggs

A pitcher, played for a Cyclones collegiate team in the summer between transferring from the University of Georgia to UTC in 2003. He later returned to UGA and was drafted during his junior year by the St. Louis Cardinals. A part of the 2011 World Series Champion team, Boggs is still with the Cardinals.

Since 1993, Koontz and the Cyclones have had 259 players receive college scholarships and 48 players drafted by and/or play for Major League Baseball teams. One in particular brought a lot of attention to the program, and Koontz referred to him as a game-changer.

David Mead was a supplemental first-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 1999. But first, he was a Chattanooga Cyclone. "I had played sandlot baseball all my life and it was not until I was 13 that I began to play organized ball," says David Mead. "I met George when I was 15 and before then I was kind of blind to the entire competitive baseball world."

Once Koontz saw Mead pitch, the two have been working together ever since.

"The ball club was a little different back then and we did not play on a lot of college campuses," says Mead. "But there was a lot of competition and it was really nerve-wracking." Mead was a tall kid with a loose arm who had a huge jump in his throwing velocity when he was a senior at Soddy Daisy High School. These three qualities gained him a lot of attention going into his senior season of high school.

"I knew there would be scouts at my games, but I was not prepared for what it would be like," says Mead.

"When I went out to play my first game of the season there were 20 or 30 professional scouts watching me." This began a whirlwind journey for Mead. Professional scouts began calling his house late at night and then calling his high school to check up on him. And college offers came in too, but all Mead wanted to do was play professional baseball.

"Going in the first round of the draft was unexpected," says Mead. "I walked out to my front porch and cried. Everything I had ever wanted had come true."

Walking out to the mound in Rangers Ballpark for the first time Mead felt overwhelmed. Everything he had ever done led to that moment, but oddly, he felt like he was just starting. Mead played in the big leagues for eight seasons before a string of career ending injuries forced him to leave. "It was the best eight years of my life so far," says Mead.

The strong pull of home brought Mead back to Sale Creek, and it also led him back to Koontz. Now Mead works at Koontz's practice during the day and at 2 p.m. he goes out to Koontz's baseball facility, Real Sports Academy, and helps coach a Cyclones team and conduct pitching lessons. "I returned to the Cyclones because I feel strongly about what is going on here," says Mead. "All the coaches are former players. All good guys that want to give back and we are giving our best to help every kid."

He laughs and says he always swore he would never coach, but now Mead gives pitching lessons to kids as young as seven. Coaching gives Mead the opportunity to pass along all the knowledge he has acquired over his baseball career. "I want each kid to walk away knowing what they're capable of," he says. "I want to teach them to put blinders on and give this all you got. See how good you can actually be, because if you don't, it will haunt you. Leave baseball with no doubts."

When it comes to talent, Mead says he can absolutely tell when a certain player is special. It's as simple as how the ball comes out of their hand or off their bat, and he is here to help those kids realize their dreams; specifically kids like Dakota.

Dakota Hudson is on the cusp of experiencing everything he has ever dreamed of. Baseball America has ranked Hudson as the 91st top high school player for the 2013 Major League Draft. The only Cyclones to be ranked higher were Wes Hodges, Mike Minor and David Mead.

Hudson is a senior at Sequatchie County High School. The right-handed pitcher committed early to Mississippi State University, but with one more baseball season left, the future is undecided. "As of right now, I am going to Mississippi State," says Dakota. "That is my top college choice, but if I have the option to be drafted, that is a different story."

Like Mead, Hudson has the size and the arm that cannot be ignored. His arm has gotten a lot of attention since he began playing with the Cyclones two years ago. The draft will take place in June, but Major League scouts begin doing home visits to prospective players in the winter. Hudson has already had three in-home visits and attended the Atlanta Braves camp. "I have been told that Major League scouts just like to fill your head, but with them sitting on my couch at least I know I have a chance to play in the majors," says Hudson.

The 6'5'' pitcher has a fastball that tops out around 93 mph. And during this off season he has been perfecting his craft by combining precision with power. Hudson also plans to add a new change-up to his list of pitches. Clearly a powerful athlete, Hudson can be intimidating approaching the mound. He sees a lot of talented hitters while traveling with the Cyclones, but he keeps calm while he is throwing. "When I get to the mound, I am not nervous," says Hudson. "Pitching is a mindset and once you get the rhythm down, it's smooth sailing."

Hudson credits the Cyclones with helping perfect his craft. He says that the program has taught him a lot about pitching other than just having a strong arm. He attests that the program does demand a lot, but if you commit, you will only become a better player in the end. The attitude of the Cyclones coaches have had a lasting effect on Hudson. He says their passion for the game has become contagious.

He grew up playing baseball, and began playing select baseball when he was eight, but Hudson chose the Cyclones in the fall of 2011. His parents have been very supportive of his baseball career and his dad helped him originally get connected with Koontz. "Since Dakota has been with the Cyclones, George has done a tremendous job at getting the kids introduced to college scouts," his father Sam Hudson says. "He not only teaches the boys the baseball aspect of it all, but also is really good at preparing the parents and players for the whole recruiting process. For me, knowing what to expect has been invaluable."

This year will be a telling one for Hudson, but he is just excited for whatever may come. "I am just trying to play it back, enjoy myself and keep working hard," says Hudson. "It's not overwhelming, but it is a little unbelievable."

"I am just trying to play it back, enjoy myself and keep working hard. It's not overwhelming, but it is a little unbelievable."

- Dakota Hudson

Hudson may be unsure of his future, but he is thankful for one more baseball season at Sequatchie County. "I am looking forward to getting back on the mound," says Hudson. "I have missed it. It is sometimes nice to have a week off here and there, but the months in between seasons are tough. And this season, I am just going to enjoy it. I am going to work hard for sure, but I want to have fun with my friends."

With warm weather approaching and Opening Day just around the corner, Koontz and the Cyclones are preparing to leave the practice facilities and return to the field. During this season, and the ones to come, the Chattanooga Cyclones plan to push forward and continue the baseball dynasty that began almost twenty years ago.

"I do enjoy the offseason because it gives me a time to recharge," says Koontz. "However, at this point in the winter, I begin looking forward to summer and the season starting."