It wasn't that long ago when Jimmy Buckner pushed wheelchairs around Nashville International Airport for United Airlines, umpired summer-league softball games and worked as a security guard.

Buckner, a longtime assistant softball coach at Volunteer State Community College, saw a 2020 assistant coaching position fall through just 20 games into his tenure at Florida A&M. The aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic left the Robertson County native with three jobs – none of which were in coaching for the first time in over two decades.

Then close friend and former Mississippi Valley State softball coach Lee Smith called.

“I was kind of worried about if I was going to get back into coaching at the college level,” Buckner said. “I was doing security and working at the airport and umpiring, so that kept my mind busy. It kept me in the game a little bit. Finally an opportunity arose, and I jumped on it quick.”

Smith said he wanted Buckner to become the university’s third head coach following his recent resignation, and that he would put in a good word for him.

Now, Buckner is looking back on his first season as a Division I softball coach.

“I think it went really good,” he said of the 2022 season, which ended with an 11-26 record. “I took over a program that is rich in tradition, and I had some good seniors and a good class. We made a lot of good strides.”

Buckner had big shoes to fill – Smith was a nine-time Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Coach of the Year that led the Devilettes to eight NCAA tournament appearances – but he found forms of success in his first spring.

Mississippi Valley State finished with a 9-15 record in conference, recorded double-digit wins for the first time since 2018 and had four players named to the All-SWAC team.

“We are very aggressive,” said Buckner, who’s team ranked among the NCAA’s top 50 teams in triples per game (0.30, 16th) and stolen bases per game (1.57, 41st). “Sometimes I’m too aggressive.

“We’re going to steal, and we’re going to get triples. We’re going to do what we can to make ourselves successful. Being ranked in the NCAA like that, that was awesome. That was good news because I had some fast young ladies.”

Buckner’s path to the Mississippi Delta stemmed from success at almost every level.

He enjoyed a prep career as a three-sport athlete at East Robertson – he was a part of the 1992 state runner-up boys basketball team – then played junior college baseball at Aquinas College and Vol State. Buckner worked as a student assistant with Western Kentucky’s women’s basketball program in 1999 before returning to VSCC to coach.

Shortly after his arrival, Pioneers softball coach Johnny Lynn asked Buckner to assist him with the program. They worked in tandem for 19 seasons, winning over 500 games in Gallatin and reaching the NJCAA tournament in 2011.

“Mississippi Valley’s been a good program for years, and I think they got a fresh start with Jimmy,” Lynn said. “He’s done good. I’ve watched some of their highlights, and he brought a lot of energy to their team. The players fed off of that, and they got some big wins over there.”

Buckner said a lot of how he operates his program is based on lessons learned from Lynn, from the basic fundamentals of the sport to recruiting homegrown talent.

And home means a lot to Buckner, who still resides in the greater Robertson County area with his wife and son, Wesley, a junior on Greenbrier’s football team. Buckner admitted it’s tough to leave his family for months at a time but called coaching at Mississippi Valley State “a dream come true.”

As he begins preparations for his second season at the helm, Buckner hopes the Devilettes will take another step in their rebuild and reach the SWAC tournament for the first time in four seasons.

“We’re just excited, and I’m excited about this fall and this next spring coming up,” Buckner said. “It’s going to be really exciting to coach.

“My goal is to win the tournament and get to the NCAA tournament, not just for me but for my young ladies. To get them that experience of playing in front of 15,000 people and 9,000 people, against Alabama or LSU, that’s my dream for them.”

Blaine Kellar serves as the sports reporter for the Robertson County Connection. He graduated from Austin Peay State University in 2022 and has contributed for Main Street Preps since 2019.

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