published Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Wiedmer: Softball is Easter tradition

COLUMN

At least a few things have changed about the Lady Trojans Classic softball tournament since it first began in 1991.

For starters, 73-year-old Soddy-Daisy coach Clifford Kirk is 21 years older than when he first staged the event. For another, the tourney now rakes in $7,500 or more for the program from this single weekend, making money on everything from bar-b-licious $5 pork plates to T-shirts.

But the tournament’s always maintained at least one constant.

“We’ve always played it on Easter weekend,” Kirk said Saturday afternoon, just after his Lady Trojans survived Ooltewah 2-0 in an “extra inning” contest that moved them into the semifinals.

“That way everybody knows when it is. The dates may float. The weather may be a little bit too warm or too cold. The crowds may be bigger some years more than others. But it’s always been on Easter weekend. It just seems to work pretty well that way.”

It’s pretty much the only sporting event that always works with Easter, since the world’s most poignant religious holiday falls anywhere from March 22 to April 25.

So from a sporting perspective, Easter is sometimes tied to NCAA regional finals, other years to the Final Four and still others to the Masters, along with other golf events, various NASCAR races and tennis tournaments, including the prestigious Easter Bowl junior tennis tourney.

No other holiday is in such flux regarding sports.

But around Soddy-Daisy, “this tournament is an Easter tradition,” said Jane Nunley, who ran the concession stand, kept the official scorebook on Field No. 2 and still found time to cheer daughter Kelsey’s efforts with the Lady Trojans.

“I got a little nervous about church one year when we didn’t finish the championship game until 2 a.m. one Easter, but it’s always been over at some point on Saturday night.”

The tradition appears to appeal to newcomers and old-timers alike.

Sitting inside the family SUV as she awaited the start of her daughter Abby’s game as a member of the Rhea County team, Cathy Davis enjoyed the fact that her fifth-grade son Tayne could fish in Soddy Lake while her daughter played softball across the road. Their oldest son Josh is a former walk-on punter at Tennessee who now kicks for Middle Tennessee.

“We moved here from Iowa a few years ago, and this is my first time to watch this,” said Cathy, whose husband Mike oversees the weight-training program at Rhea County High School. “This is really a fun event.”

Added Mike: “We’ve seen some pretty good softball and we’ll still have a chance to have an Easter egg hunt when we get home. We’ve even seen a few girls from other teams fishing before games. You bring your helmet, your bat and your fishing pole and you’ve got it made.”

Billie Eldridge has been watching softball around Soddy-Daisy for more than 50 years. Her granddaughter Kaitlyn plays on the Grace Academy softball team that knocked off Baylor on Saturday morning.

“It’s definitely become a part of my Easter,” said Eldridge, whose father, Ervin McEwen, coached basketball at Sale Creek High for 33 years. “I’m always trying to figure out how I’m going to fix Easter lunch and still come to these games. It really has become a tradition around here.”

Kirk never dreamed he’d start such a tradition. He never even planned to coach softball.

“I was driving a truck and building houses, trying to keep the bills paid,” he said. “Then one day a guy calls me and tells me that if I don’t coach my youngest daughter’s [Janet] team, they won’t have a team. And Janet was the only girl who’d played before.”

But that team won its summer league championship his first year on the job. Eventually he got into school coaching, directing Hixson to multiple state titles before collecting even more with Soddy-Daisy. Along the way the Lady Trojans program took over the Easter tournament that had first been known as the Tim Neighbors Tournament to Benefit St. Jude’s.

Now the Soddy-Daisy ballfields are filled with 32 teams from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky, each school guaranteed a minimum of four games over two days.

“We have a lot of teams that come back year after year,” Kirk said, “so we must be doing something right.”

Thankfully, there’s at least one more constant to the Lady Trojans Classic.

“We never play on Sunday,” Kirk said. “If we can’t finish it on Saturday night, it’s over. We’ve never had that happen, but we’re not playing on Easter.”

At least not after 2 a.m.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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