New coach Willis brings big league experience to VHS baseball program

Published 4:12 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Kent Willis is a baseball lifer. He played the game at a high level. He’s coached it at an even higher level. He’s spending this summer in Indiana coaching minor leaguers. And, next spring, he’ll be leading Vicksburg High’s squad.

Willis, a Mississippi native who has spent most of his 58 years around the game of baseball, has been hired as Vicksburg High’s head coach. The move was approved at last week’s meeting of the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees.

“It wasn’t a situation I was trying to get or go after, but this worked itself out. They needed a coach and they were sincere about what they wanted to do,” Willis said. “I’d like to thank the administration and the school board for giving me this opportunity and being committed to it. They made it very appealing. You have to like the facilities. You’re working with good student-athletes and your community is conducive to good baseball. That’s where you want to be.”

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Willis was born in Columbus and played college baseball at Southern Miss in the early 1980s. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1986 and pitched in their minor league organization and the Montreal Expos’ organization for three seasons.

Willis never got past Class A ball as a player, but later embarked on a successful career as a minor league coach for the Atlanta Braves. He worked in their organization as a pitching coach from 1995 until 2010, with stops at most of their minor league affiliates. From 2007 until 2009 he was the pitching coordinator for all of the Braves’ minor league teams.

“It’s a passion of mine. When you do something you’re passionate about, it seems like you never work a day in your life. That’s what it seems like to me. This has been a blessing,” Willis said. “I’ve played baseball since my mom pushed me out the door to do something outside. I just gravitated to it. I’ve found a tremendous passion for it, and working with kids, adults, with people who love the game of baseball and want to see it move in the right direction and give all kids an opportunity to play the game.”

In recent years, Willis has returned to the amateur levels of the sport. He was the head coach at Jackson’s Murrah High School last spring. This summer, however, he’s working as the pitching coach for the Gary Southshore Railcats.

Based in Gary, Indiana, the Railcats are a member of the American Association of Professional Baseball, an official partner league of Major League Baseball.

“It’s always important because this is the grassroots. Kids need direction and they need to be disciplined at the right time. If you catch them at this age, they can be refined. It’s important that you go in and teach the kids direction, character-building and how to understand what this game is all about,” Willis said of coaching at the high school level.

“This will teach you not only what happens in the game of baseball, but it prepares you for life,” he added. “When you have the opportunity to work with younger kids and be a mentor, and then direct them on the baseball field and classroom, and teach them about what’s important in life and how to be outstanding young men.”

Willis’ duties with the Railcats have prevented him from meeting his Vicksburg High team. He hopes to meet with them later this month when the Railcats have a brief break in the schedule, and then get to work on turning them into a championship contender.

Vicksburg finished 16-12 last season and won the MHSAA Region 4-5A championship for the second year in a row, but will move into a new classification and region in 2024.

“Vicksburg deserves the opportunity to play for state championships. This is what you’re hired to do,” Willis said. “6A is going to be a tough division, but we’re going to be a tough-minded team. We welcome the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to running this program and making it something we can all be proud of.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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