Mark Carroll’s tenure at Denham Springs High has spanned 18 seasons punctuated by sustained success and stability on his coaching staff.
It’s no coincidence that those two factors are intertwined, which makes the notion of an almost completely fresh start somewhat of a foreign concept to a man who has coached 33 seasons.
Circumstances sometimes call for outside-the-box moves, though, and a domino effect put Carroll in that spot following circumstances that created some personnel changes at the high school and within his staff.
So the longtime Yellow Jackets’ skipper went to work as soon as a memorable 2017 season wrapped up and came up with what he called a dream team revamped coaching staff.
After right-hand man Josh Martin departed before the 2017 campaign and assistant/head football coach Dru Nettles was dismissed, Carroll was left with two of his lieutenants, Lafayette Duhe and young up-and-comer Chris Blanchard, who left after this past season for a job at Springfield.
Carroll has reloaded nicely, hiring former DSHS star Rickey Noland, Don Barrow -- who played for him at Belaire in the late 1990s -- and finally Assumption head coach Craig Castello, who was on the staff at Zachary for six years.
Those three join Duhe on the much different looking DSHS staff. Barrow and Noland came aboard in time for the Metro League summer season, while Castello’s hire became official in late July.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have Josh coach with me for a long time, so when we went into (2017) without him and without Dru, it was tough because we had to do a lot of reconfiguring on practice strategies and how we wanted to teach our guys,” Carroll said. “It was a challenge and I knew once we got through it that I needed to bring some guys in.
“It’s a never-ending challenge to find guys who believe the same things you do but also have different ways to communicate and that’s a key because our kids all know the message, but it’s always good to have some new voices to deliver it. These guys are really good baseball people and they’re going to work hard and give me a very strong crew to work with and lean on.”
There is certainly no shortage of excitement from the newcomers.
Barrow is the one of the three who has known Carroll the longest after starring on Carroll’s last two teams at Belaire along with twin brother Del Barrow, a former Denham assistant football coach.
Both brothers spent a season each at Alcorn State and Delgado Community College before life summoned them into the real world. Don Barrow spent most of the last 12 years working for Cox Communications but stayed connected to baseball as a non-faculty coach at Scotlandville and Capitol and as a player in the adult Sugar Cane League.
Barrow didn’t forget his dream of teaching and coaching and worked towards a college degree through Louisiana-Monroe, a task he recently wrapped up in time to make the connection with Carroll.
“My brother and I are Coach Carroll clones,” said the 36-year-old Barrow, who will work with outfielders and with all players on base running. “We sat up under him for so long that we think alike do a lot of things on the same page.
“I want to help to bring a different perspective to what Coach already does and add something from energy perspective. I look at the group of guys we have and see the talent and potential to be right there at the top of (Class) 5A.”
The Jackets have certainly been right there in the upper echelon for most of Carroll’s tenure, including from 2002-04 when Noland, now 31, was their starting catcher and captain as DSHS got rolling under Carroll.
Noland will focus his work with the Denham hitters after a stellar prep career followed by strong years at LSU-Eunice and Delta State, where he was a two-time NCAA Division II All-American and the 2008 Gulf South Conference West Division Player of the Year. He signed with St. Louis Cardinals franchise after college and played minor-league three years before launching his coaching career at Ocean Springs, Miss.
During his seven-year stay at the school on the Gulf Coast, Noland spoke regularly with Carroll about job possibilities in Louisiana, especially at DSHS. He stayed put to gain some experience, but Noland was ready to pounce when the latest chance arose.
“Playing at Denham is four years of my life that have played a huge role in who I am now and definitely helped me grow up as a player and a leader,” Noland said. “Coach Carroll taught me a lot about knowing the game – that it’s not just how far you can hit or how hard you can throw. He pushed me a lot and he was one of main reasons I kept getting better. I was a late bloomer and he kept believing in me and really instilled in me and trusted me to be a captain of the team.
“Me coming back to coach at Denham has always been a work in progress. I have thought about it a bunch of times but I still had things I needed to accomplish. When he called me this time, I jumped on it immediately and asked him ‘Who do I need to interview with?’ I wanted him to know how badly I wanted to come back. I’m sitting on green and ready to go.”
Like Barrow, the 33-year-old Noland is anxious to be another voice to deliver the message he absorbed from Carroll and has carried with him.
“Coach told me he wanted to build his staff with some new life and energy,” Noland said. “Sometimes kids need to hear a different voice even if it’s the same message they have heard before. I like to teach players how to think ahead.”
Especially when they step into the batter’s box.
“One thing I want to focus on is our hitters’ approaches,” Noland said. “We showed some growth this summer and guys have really taken to it.”
Castello hasn’t forged the same kind of bond with the current Denham crew, but he has the most recent connection to the success that District 4-5A has become known for.
After starring at West Feliciana and playing for coaching legend Roger Cador at Southern, Castello got into coaching as a non-faculty coach at Zachary in 2008, the middle season of the Broncos’ three-year run of Class 4A state championships.
When Zachary coach Jesse Cassard needed an assistant in 2010, he hired Castello and he stayed on the staff for 5 seasons before taking the head-coaching position at Assumption.
“I’ve known Coach Carroll from when I was at Zachary and we would run into each other,” Castello said. “I always had a pretty good relationship with him and we bounced ideas off of each other a lot and ran in the same circles. I was able to build a good relationship with him and told him that if I was ever in a position to leave a head-coaching spot for, the job only people I would go work for were Coach Cassard or him.”
Likewise, Carroll tracked Castello’s progress after he left the district and the bond grew stronger when former Yellow Jackets’ star Brock Batty played for a summer team Castello coached.
“We talked a lot about him coming here and coaching,” Carroll said. “I really like the fit because he has a lot of really good experience with some great coaches.”
Now Castello sees a chance to duplicate that on his resume.
Getting back into 5A baseball was a major appeal, but the fact that his next challenge is at Denham in District 4-5A was a lure he couldn’t resist and the chance to work for Carroll was vital in that decision.
Last spring, all six district teams made the playoffs, five advanced past the opening round and four moved into the state quarterfinals. On the way to the 5A state crown, Central had to knock off Live Oak and DSHS, while state semifinalist Sam Houston outlasted Walker in the quarterfinals.
“One of the big things I learned coaching at Zachary is that if you work hard with the kind of talent we’ll consistently have at Denham, we’re going to have every opportunity to make deep runs in the playoffs,” Castello said. “The thing that makes this a great fit for me is that it’s Coach Carroll. He’s as excited as much as anybody about these changes and the kids should be, too. They can see that the program is not at a standstill -- that Coach isn’t going to be complacent.
"Bringing in new coaches is a way for him to make folks in the community understand that he’s doing everything he can to help these kids to be successful. We’re all going to work hard together to implement some new philosophies that we believe the kids are going to relate to.”
There is some symmetry to the juggled coaching staff.
Carroll was the defensive coordinator under Nettles for 12 seasons, but will not coach football this fall for the first time since he got to Denham. The tradeoff will be a chance to spend more time with baseball players in the fall in 4-on-1 settings – four players with one coach.
“We have a chance to do some different stuff that we’ve never done before in the fall,” said Carroll, who is 401-211-1 at DSHS with four district championships, 17 playoff appearances and a state semifinal berth in 2007.
“We’re going to be way ahead of where we normally are by the time we start practicing in January because we can get a lot of teaching in. Once we get organized and get rolling, I feel like this is a chance that can be very positive.”
A chance to take a step forward, and for the first time in a while, with a much different hierarchy around the man who has been a constant for 18 years.
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
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