Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — After three years away from the third base coaching box, Ron Free is back in the saddle again.
Free, who previously coached at Adena from 2013 to 2015, was hired as Southeastern’s head baseball coach in October. The Panthers weren’t the only team calling but, given his Scioto Valley Conference background, it’s the group he felt most comfortable with.
“I’ve been wanting to get back into things,” Free said. “I had a couple of job opportunities and [Southeastern] seemed like it fit me. I wanted to get back in the SVC and the kids down here are tremendous. So I’m excited to be back.”
During Free’s three-year tenure in Frankfort, the Warriors were 46-26 with a 32-10 record inside the SVC. In 2015, the program won its first gold ball since 2007. Now, he takes over a Southeastern program that’s had its ups and downs in recent years.
Over the past three seasons, the Panthers have compiled a record of 33-35. Southeastern ended last year at 6-14 overall with a 6-2 loss to Meigs in a Division III sectional semifinal.
Make no bones about it: with Free comes a new culture in Londonderry.
“The talent is here. I think that, probably, the way we do business, we’re benefiting from that already,” Free said. “Small ball is going to be the game with us and I’ve seen success in the past with that. These kids work hard. They know my expectations and they’re feeding off it. They want to win bad.”
This year’s roster will be the biggest Free has ever worked with. The Panthers boast of 15 players, all of which Free says can have a significant impact.
“I’m going to be honest with you … I’m pushing a team aspect,” Free said. “We’ve got 15 kids. They’re all going to play. My job is to get them to understand their roles. We’ve got a group of eight pitchers who are throwing well and, hitting-wise, we’re working on it. We’ve got 15 guys here that’s going to make an impact. They can all play a role. We’re going to make a splash.”
Free says the Panthers have also embraced one of his former players, Eli Kunkel, who graduated in 2015. Kunkel was recently diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare, degenerative, fatal brain disorder.
This season, Southeastern will have Kunkel with them everywhere they go. Free and his coaching staff have placed decals on the back of each of the team’s helmets … and they have plenty extra if any other teams or coaches are interested.
“We put the decal on the back of our helmets to support Eli,” Free said. “I coached him for three years at Adena and he’s one of the best baseball players I’ve ever coached. He’s electric. Just to imagine what that family is going through … we’re just out here playing baseball. He won’t ever get to do that again. That’s something that’s hard on me. These guys understand that and we want to do anything we can to support Eli and his family.”
Free officially begins his coaching tenure at Southeastern on March 23 when his Panthers travel to West Union for a season-opening doubleheader.
“We’ve done everything and we’re prepared,” Free said. “We just need to play now. I’ll leave it at this: we’re going to make some noise. I like this group.”