Seven pages of notes, xeroxed and collated, were stuffed in the envelope that greeted a Herald reporter at his desk one morning this week.
Above the return address on the front of the envelope, the name “Billy Keels.”
Many know Keels as Lewisville High School’s baseball coach. Now he’s the “former” Lewisville baseball coach. The packet of notes included his career record, teams he’d coached, even references with phone numbers. The mailing announcing his retirement from coaching baseball (he will still teach and coach football) was very Billy Keels-like.
Keels teaches English at Lewisville, but also public speaking. Notes help with public speaking, something Keels not only preached, but also practiced. He became an avid note-taker at Wofford College, where he played baseball nearly 30 years ago. His devotion to being prepared and having important points written down on paper was most noticeable at Lewisville’s college signing ceremonies, held each spring in the school’s media center.
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Keels’ players would saunter up to the podium nervously, pull a many-times folded piece of paper out of their pocket and read the contents line by line in front of their families and classmates. Keels would do the same, rattling off factoids and anecdotes about his players from his own yellow pad of notes, alternating between the player’s greatest triumphs and the embarrassing screw-ups they knew would someday be shared by their coach in a setting like this.
“It was always personal, every story he told,” said Alex Reed, a freshman catcher at Brunswick Community College who played at Lewisville for four years under Keels. “And when I got to college he actually sent me the notes that he wrote about me. Sent it in the mail. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Keels would spend at least an hour preparing notes about each signee. The point was “Just to make the kids feel special one more time,” he said. “To me, it is a big deal to get an opportunity to continue your athletic career, more importantly, your academic career. I think sports in college gives some kids a little motivation to stay in college, when times are tough or they’re homesick, to get that college degree.”
More than a few times Keels’ eyes would well with tears as he spoke about the kids he’d loved so much, how they had grown or made him shake his head.
“He’s a player’s coach and he gets emotional sometimes because he cares so much about his players,” said Reed. “I’ve never had a coach that cares about his players as much as Keels does. He looks out for all his players. Hard.”
“I figure these seniors that just graduated, the ones that have been here since eighth grade, I bet I spent a thousand hours with them over the past five years and they become like your own kids,” said Keels. “So sometimes you do get emotional when you have to tell them bye.”
So, at least he has some practice with goodbyes. Keels’ daughter, Allie, will be a junior at Lewisville High School this fall. His son, Trey, will be a sophomore at Presbyterian College and plays on the Blue Hose football team. The notes Keels mailed to The Herald said he wants to spend more time focused on his children and being a better husband to his wife, Angie.
No one could challenge Keels’ desire for a change after almost three decades spent worrying about other people’s kids.
Lewisville will miss its baseball coach and not just because his heart beat so hard for his players. In 17 years at the school, Keels compiled a 311-155 record, won eight region titles, made eight appearances in the state semifinals, appeared in three state championship series and won two state titles.
Building on the success Bennie McMurray had at Lewisville before him, Keels entered every new season expecting to contend for a state championship. Before the 2010 season, he told Lewisville principal Dr. James Knox that if the Lions didn’t win the state title that season, Knox should fire him. They won the 1A state championship.
But Keels kept the pressure to himself, preferring to instead keep it light for his team most of the time.
Logan Pemberton, who played for Lewisville for five years and was Keels’ assistant coach for two, remembered two instances very clearly from his playing days. Pemberton and his teammates were lifting weights when a cockroach climbed on one piece of equipment. Keels told the team, “this is how much I love y’all,” and ate the bug. Keels did something similar involving an earthworm later that year, to the howling delight of his players. They questioned their coach’s sanity. They didn’t question his willingness to do anything for them.
“You come out to practice each day and he’s trying to make it fun and interesting. He’s done it for the four years I was there and even before I was there,” said College of Charleston pitcher Evan Sisk, one of the best to play for Keels. “He’s just really into the game and really into the guys he’s around. He spreads a good feeling around the whole field.”
Reed remembered settling in his seat for a long bus ride to an away game and Keels handing out packets with pages of -- surprise! -- notes about opposing teams. The scouting reports were part of an obsession with preparation that Pemberton said resulted in the team’s comfort in any game or in-season situation, no matter how tricky or unusual.
Keels’ goofiness often blanketed his smoldering desire to win.
Lewisville fell short in the 1A state finals in 2016, but the Lions were well-stocked in 2017 even after Sisk graduated. The emphasis was on redemption and Lewisville plowed through the district and Upper State tournaments to reach the state finals against Lake View.
The Lions won the first game in Richburg and at the end of practice the day before the second game, Keels called the team out to centerfield. He pointed to the Upper State championship and state championship signs posted on the fence. Upper State signs are painted gold and state championship signs are blue. Keels wasn’t grinning or joking. He made clear to the group standing in the outfield, including his son, Trey, that he wanted a new blue sign. And the following day, his team got him one.
It would have been a perfect send-off for Keels and he pondered retiring. He stuck around for one more year, helping groom assistant coach Blake Barron, who becomes the Lions’ new head coach.
Keels’ final Lewisville team fell short of state championship contention this season. It was time to call it a day.
Back to his goodbye notes. The seven pages, maybe the final time Billy Keels would take notes about the Lewisville baseball program, concluded with this:
“My family fell in love with the Lewisville community. I had some bigger school opportunities, even some college interest, but I always felt like I had the best job in the state. I know the Lion community has had an impact on me and my family. Hopefully, I’ve had an impact on them.”