County Line baseball coach Ryan Casalman wasn’t sure what kind of baseball player he was getting three years ago when Cole Leavell approached him about playing for the Indians.
“The only way I got to know Cole was through his cousin Blake; I had Blake in class,” Casalman said. “He came out and tried to play basketball. But he would always talk about baseball. He played for a travel team his ninth grade year, but he didn’t play a lot. I knew the coach in Paris, and I figured if he couldn’t play much for them he might not be able to help us.”
Casalman was wrong. So were a lot of other naysayers.
Recently, Leavell laced up his spikes as he prepared to play in what may be his last baseball game as part of the Arkansas High School Coaches Association All-Star baseball game.
For Leavell, a right-hander who won 10 games this past season, striking out opposing batters with an upper 80s four-seam fastball or his self-taught knuckleball is only half the story.
Leavell attended three schools in parts of four years before earning his high school diploma from County Line this spring. When he was younger, Leavell was a two-time all-star in Russellville’s little league system. Then he moved to Paris, played some travel ball as a ninth grader, and enrolled at County Line. He was a raw.
“I grew up in Russellville, and that’s when I first started playing,” Leavell said. “At Russellville, there were a lot of athletes everywhere, they’re good at everything.
“At County Line, it was a lot different.”
Leavell learned to pitch while heaving baseball’s at a bucket hanging on a wooden fence. “If I could throw it in the bucket, it was a strike,” he said. “
Leavell taught himself how to throw a knuckleball, perfect a 12-to-6 curveball, and throw two types of fastballs — the aforementioned four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball designed to bend inside to right-handed hitters to keep them honest.
“He had a really good sophomore year,” Casalman said. “We went to the semifinals that year, and he won some big games for us. He would bat in the middle of the lineup. Then, at the end of his junior year he said he was moving to Dover.”
Growing up in Russellville, Leavell was living the American dream.
His mom, Alicia, had been married to Gerran Pyles for eight years when, two days after Christmas in 2013, Pyles suffered a stroke and died. Leavell’s world was turned upside down. Leavell moved to Ratcliff to live with his aunt and uncle, hard-working Melissa and Donnie Duran. For the next two years, Leavell flourished under the Durans guidance. Then, he announced he was going to Dover. Casalman and the Indians moved forward. Or, so they thought.
Leavell called Casalman last November.
“Hey coach, can I come back to County Line?”
“He had moved to Dover and I remember (Dover baseball coach Jason McGhee) telling one of their coaches he could probably be a No. 2 or 3 pitcher for them,” Casalman said. “Then, about the end of November, he (Leavell) called me and asked if would be able to play baseball at County Line. I said, ‘Cole, I don’t think the AAA (Arkansas Activities Association) will allow it.’
“But he moved back, anyway.”
County Line Superintendent Taylor Gattis and Melissa Duran wrote passionate letters to Arkansas Activities Director Executive Director Lance Taylor.
To keep kids from bouncing from school to school to benefit their athletic careers, the AAA monitors such abrupt movements. In the case of Leavell, however, Taylor’s decision was an easy one.
“Lance Taylor told our superintendent it was the most unanimous decision they ever had with a hardship,” Casalman said.
“You play the cards that you’re dealt and don’t take anything for granted,” Leavell said. “Life goes on. You can’t live in the past.”
Leavell remains close to his mom, albeit from afar, while fitting in well with the Durans. “They (Durans) do a lot for me, honestly,” Leavell said. “They’re really great to me.”
“I give credit to his aunt and uncle,” Casalman said. “The only thing I did was to make sure he was at practice every day.”
Leavell finished the 2016-17 school year at County Line, compiling a 10-1 record with a 2.23 earned run average. He did this while maintaining a steady job at the Paris Sonic.
“I work about 25 to 30 hours a week,” he said.
Leavell’s decision to return to County Line was beneficial to all involved. The Indians, who struggled to find their way in 2016, flipped the grid and finished 19-3 this season.
“Last year we went to state we were like 5-17; we had the talent, we just couldn’t put anything together,” Leavell said. “This year we were 19-3 and really executed.”
“We had our mind right and knew what to do in certain situations,” Leavell said. “We communicated with each other.”
As of All-Star week, Leavell had no college offers. He said if it doesn’t work out he’ll join the workforce on a full-time basis. But he’ll always have 2017.
“Really, just having the teammates behind me, that was it,” he said of his record. “Yes, I may throw strikes, but if they hit it my teammates have to make plays, and they really played behind me.”
“He was a good pitcher,” Casalman said. “I never would have thought Cole would have gone 10-and-1 this year, but still, he had to go out there and throw strikes.”