Not long after his Soddy-Daisy softball team won last year's TSSAA Class AAA state championship, a 74-year-old Clifford Kirk announced his retirement, thinking he had coached his last high school game. But fast forward about nine months and a renewed Coach Kirk can be found at a reawakened Sale Creek program, and the revitalization of the two seems beneficial for all involved.
The Class A Lady Panthers will take a 5-3 record into this weekend's Lady Trojan Classic, a tournament which took on that name in 1990 -- Kirk's first season at Soddy-Daisy. This weekend he'll be a guest at the Soddy Lake Kids' Park for the first time.
"I won't have to do as much work," he said.
Based on today's pool-play results, the tournament's 16 teams will be placed into Gold and Silver brackets for Saturday's single-elimination play scheduled to start at 9 a.m. The championship games are set to begin at 1:30 p.m.
Sale Creek principal Tobin Davidson, a former coach, approached Kirk after his announced retirement about taking over the softball coaching position. After fulfilling an obligation to coach Soddy MIddle School's team in the fall, Kirk accepted.
"He's something else," Davidson said. "He's got energy, I promise you. He told the girls, 'I didn't come up here just to fill a job. I came up here to win the state tournament.' Talk with him long enough and he'll have you believing him, too."
All 10 of Kirk's state titles have come at the Class AAA level. Before the first one, which was at Hixson in 1987, he was an assistant coach at the Class A level at Lookout Valley.
"The talent is not as great here as I had at Soddy-Daisy," Kirk said. "We've got some talented kids, just not as many. The rest have got to fill in, and you teach them what to do."
One who came to him recently is junior transfer Brittany Lanham, whom Kirk coached at Soddy-Daisy. The outfielder and left-handed pitcher said Kirk hasn't changed, but the play in each classification is a lot different.
"It was kind of more intense at Soddy-Daisy," Lanham said. "You still have to do what you're supposed to do here, but you still have fun, too. Lately it had been like a job. Now it's fun again, like it's supposed to be. The games are still intense."
Lanham has gone 5-for-7 in her brief time with the Lady Panthers. Karah Powell, one of four eighth-graders on the team, is off to a 10-for-15 start.
Eighth-grader Kirby Webb adds depth to the pitching staff. Classmate, shortstop and leadoff batter Mikah McCombs is working on learning the left-handed, slap-hitting game to try to take better advantage of her speed.
"They're a big part of our team, since we don't have a big team," junior catcher Tricia Chauncey said. "Some of them are better than the older kids. They're dedicated."
There are no seniors on Sale Creek's team, so juniors such as Chauncey, third baseman Regan Garrett and pitcher/outfielder Brooke Welch have the leadership roles.
"They're the ones we look up to," McCombs said. "They're more experienced than us. They've been playing longer. They help us a lot in the field. If we don't get it, they talk to us about it."
Sophomores fill many key roles, such as outfielder Miranda Barnett, second baseman Sara Bowman, first baseman Bailey Jinette and utility player Savana Weaver. Freshman Ashtyn Spencer plays center field on days she doesn't pitch.
A storage building with a press box on top is being built behind the backstop at Sale Creek's field. The Lady Panthers' pride factor has risen tremendously, and they're off to a 2-0 start in District 6.
"Things have definitely changed because we're an improved team," Chauncey said. "We want to try and win the district championship."
Kirk said he expects his team to face some pressure situations in this weekend's tournament, which should pay dividends in time. And that time may be as early as this year.
"I'd like to get out of the district and into the region," Kirk said. "Next year I feel like we can go further. These kids would like to go to the state tournament, and I'd like to go with them."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.