Although they weren’t quite around when Gene Autry realeased “Back in the Saddle Again” in 1939, John Dixon and Frankie Lowery weren’t far behind. The pair are now singing the old cowboy crooner’s theme song.
When the Polk County baseball program got put in a bind last summer with an unexpected coaching vacancy, principal and athletic director Ronnie German turned to the Wildcat coaching legends to help out.
“With Coach (Michael) Carter stepping down just before school started, we didn’t have time to work things out for another coach to come in, so I asked (retired coaches) John Dixon and Frankie Lowery to help us out for a year. They willingly stepped up,” German related.
“I’m very appreciative of them being willing to do this to give us a year to work things out for a permanent coach to take over,” he added. “I had the privilege to play under both of them when I played football here. Both of these guys have been a big part of Polk County sports for a long time and will do a great job.”
Along with coaching football and basketball at PCHS, both Dixon and Lowery served as the head baseball coach for the Wildcats.
“Frankie and I started playing ‘cup’ ball together when we were about seven or eight years old and we’ve been friends ever since,” expressed Dixon, who took over the baseball program, which was about to be dropped, when he first returned to Polk County from Middle Tennessee State College in 1967.
After two seasons on the diamond, Dixon became the school’s head basketball coach, while continuing to work on longtime friend Larry Davis’ football staff.
Lowery returned to PCHS in 1973, coaching girls’ basketball for a year before taking over the baseball program for five. “In 1977, John and I switched. He became the head baseball coach and I took over the boys’ basketball team,” he related.
While directing the diamond Wildcats from 1977-90, Dixon led three of his teams to the TSSAA state semifinals, before taking over the school’s principal.
“I have a lot of great memories from back then,” he stated. “Kids have changed and coaching is a little different now, but baseball is the same — you hit the ball, you throw the ball, you catch the ball. All we can ask of the kids is to work hard and do their best.”
“I never figured I’d be back here coaching (baseball), but there’s a reason for it. I wanted to help out the program until they could get things worked out (for a full-time coach),” added Dixon, who has been back on the football sideline’s helping Larry Davis’ son, Coach Derrick Davis, with the current Wildcats for the last several seasons.
Dixon, who worked with the Ocoee Middle School baseball team last season, was honored by the Cleveland Kiwanis Club with their 2013 Service to Youth Award. His was recognized for years of coaching middle, high school and youth sports, acting as a motivational speaker and serving in Hospice Care.
Lowery’s coached on-and-off at Polk County for four decades, plus spent seven years coaching in Sequatchie County. “I’d coach a while, then take off to watch my girls when they played ball. I went to Dunlap in 1995 to coach my son and moved back in 2002 to help my daughter coach when they opened Chilhowee Middle School.”
The veteran mentor has spent the last two seasons coaching at Tennessee Christian Preparatory School in Cleveland. “I have a grandson playing there,” he explained.
“John is the head coach and I’m his assistant,” Lowery said of the pair’s current duties. “I have another grandson who is a baseball player (in middle school), so I wanted to do what I can to help the program be ready for him someday.”
“Things are different now,” declared Dixon. “Before we’d just bush hog the outfield and drag an old railroad tie around the infield. Now we have such a beautiful facility (at the foot of the Smoky Mountains) and a lot of work goes on to maintain the field, with mowing and edging and everything.”
The program is just four seasons removed from a state Final 4 finish under former coach Bill Triplett, who is now the Lady Wildcat softball coach. Coach Michael Carter directed the Wildcats for two seasons, before leaving for Franklin County last summer.
“We lost six seniors, plus another couple of players from last year’s team,” commented Coach Lowery. “The kids we have, have been working really hard and hustling. We have a lot of freshman and sophomore that will play this year.”
“We have (seniors) Carter Flowers and Matthew Hammons returning, plus (senior) Daniel Hall back in the outfield,” Coach Dixon related. “We’ve also got all-state football player Tanner Plemons to come out to play baseball his senior season. He was just going to be our team manager, but then we saw him throw and we gave him a uniform.”
With just 14 players on the varsity roster, the Wildcats will have plenty of opportunity for younger players to get game experience.
“We are mainly teaching the fundamentals and hoping to get these guys some good experience to build on,” said Coach Dixon. “Hammonds is our best hitter and will play third (base) and pitch some. Carter (Flowers) is our best pitcher and he can play several positions in the field when he’s not pitching.”
“Sophomore Ben Norwood will be new behind the plate this season. He could be a good one,” declared the coach. “Trevor Peel (sophomore) and Plemons will play first, while a couple of freshmen — Ryan Flowers and Luke Cooper — are battling for second (base).”
“Cooper or Reno Wimberley, another freshman, could be at short,” Dixon continued. “Left field is between (sophomore) Jake Carden and (junior) Tristan Seen, with Hall in center. Right field will be either (freshman) Kendrick Tinker or (junior) Josh Blackburn. Tinker will also be our backup catcher and (junior) Hunter Wilcox is our utility man.”
“We’ve got two (NCAA) Division I players in Jared Allen at Middle Tennessee and Michael Hargrove at Eastern Kentucky, who both hit home runs on the same day the other day, so this is a program that can produce quality players,” expressed Coach Lowery.
The Wildcats will open the new season Monday when Tellico Plains pays a visit to Benton for a 5 p.m. first pitch. Polk will play in the McMinn Central Classic Thursday through Saturday, facing Alcoa, Cumberland County, Johnson County and Lenoir City.
“We’re just a couple of old coggers, trying to help out a program that has meant so much to us over the years,” Coach Dixon declared. “We (he and Lowery) are in the twilight of our careers and I feel really blessed to get this opportunity for us to get to work together one more time.”
“I really appreciate them (Dixon and Lowery) helping us out this season,” proclaimed German. “That’s what Polk County people do. They step up to help our schools, sports programs and kids.”
Davis enjoys being
back on the bench
Another former Polk County coach getting a chance to continue his long career is Wildkitten basketball legend Ronnie Davis, who came out of retirement to take over the Sequatchie County program this past season.
“I really didn’t want to get out when I did, but I had promised my assistant coach I would so she could take over, so I wanted to be true to my word,” he said of his stepping down after 42 years on the Copper Basin (1967-75) and Polk County (1975-2010) sidelines.
He led the Wildkittens to six TSSAA state tournaments, including his final season, plus winning the 1981 state championship title.
“I really missed it (coaching) and wanted to get back in it,” he related. “The Sequatchie job was open the year before but didn’t apply for it. When it came open again last year, I did and got the job.”
His Lady Indians went 19-12 this past season to bring his overall coaching mark to 954-454, for a better than 67 winning percentage.
“We started out the season pretty good (winning 10 of their first 13 games), but then hit the tough part of out schedule,” Coach Davis assessed.
Sequatchie County went 5-5 in District 7-AA play and finished third in the district tournament before falling to Livingston Academy, which advanced to the state quarterfinals, in the opening round of Region 4-AA play.
“Sequatchie is 80 miles from my house, so I go over and stay there during the week, but it’s not too far from home, if I need to run back for something,” he explained. “I’m planning on being back (at Sequatchie) again next season unless they run me off.”
“I’m only losing one player, although she’ll be a big loss as she scores about 23 points a game, but we have a lot of good players back.”
“I’m glad to see John (Dixon) and Frank (Lowery) back helping out (at Polk),” their longtime friend and fellow coach stated. “The kids will have fun with them and learn a lot.”