With a sweet, compact stroke from the left-hand side of the box, Riley Black has often turned the Toby McKenzie Baseball Complex into a launching pad during batting practice.
Black used his powerful swing and poise on the mound to help lead Bradley Central to a runner-up finish in the TSSAA Class AAA baseball state tournament at last year's Spring Fling, and he didn't miss a day in the gym or the batting cage as he prepared for his senior season this year.
After batting .370 with 19 extra-base hits (including four home runs) and going 6-1 on the mound with a 0.93 ERA as a junior, he appeared poised for more success. In the Bears' 2020 season opener, he tossed 5 2/3 hitless innings and went 2-for-4 with three RBIs in a 6-1 road win over Cleveland on March 9.
The Bears were among the minority of Tennessee high school baseball teams in playing at all this year. Spring sports were suspended quickly after being allowed to start and were ultimately canceled this season, with the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out what would have been the annual Spring Fling this week in Murfreesboro.
"I really pushed myself more to spend more time in the weight room and get bigger this offseason," Black said. "It sucks our season was taken away from us, because we really had put in a lot of hard work to go far again. I will definitely look at the game a lot differently now and not ever take anything for granted."
Eager to help the Bears in any way, the home-schooled Black played every position on the field except second base during his four years. Beginning in the outfield as a freshman, Black remembers having to build camaraderie with his teammates.
The majority of Black's friends went to play baseball at Walker Valley, but he followed in the footsteps of his father, who played for legendary Bears coach Joe Adams.
"I was the oddball out for a little while," said Black, who was coached by Adams' son Travis. "I still remember when Coach (Travis) Adams said, 'Get off the bench Riley, and go hit.' I went up and got a hit and was like, wow, I did something."
Black ended up starting most of the season as a freshman, even being used as a designated hitter. By his junior year, he became an ace on the mound and behind the plate with teammate Dylan Standifer; both are moving on to Lee University.
Not specializing in one position is something Black believes has helped him practice with a purpose.
"You should never take it for granted to be able to play in the field," he said. "Any spot on the roster is a spot you should be going out for. Last year in practice, I would go from throwdowns at catcher to pickoff moves on the mound. And this year, I went from third base to shortstop along with pitching and a little bit of catching. Going from one spot to the next motivated me to perform."
Black shares a special bond with junior teammate Ashton Simmons on and off the field, as both are home-schooled and played together as youth league all-stars. The separation of closely bonded teammates during the pandemic has been the most devastating thing for Black and his fellow Bears.
"I miss the game and hanging out with my teammates," said Black, who was able to work at Smoothie King and, obviously, was already accustomed to having school at home. "Over the past three years, you spend so much time with them. This has been a difficult time. I didn't know they meant so much to me."
Black is already working hard in the cages to make sure his powerful bat is ready to help the Flames, who compete in NCAA Division II.
"I have really simplified my swing a lot and focused on the mechanics with my hitting coach, Jason Short, who has been a big inspiration in my life," said Black, whose favorite high school memory was tossing a complete game to beat Walker Valley for the District 5-AAA championship as a sophomore. "When I keep my swing simple and think left-center gap, the results come."
Black looks forward to college, when he will be able to have fellowship in school with friends and also help the Flames strive for success on the diamond.
"Being home-schooled allowed me to put in hours in the cages when public school guys couldn't," Black said. "The freedom was fun, but I am excited to start my next chapter and have a successful college baseball career."