At first glance nothing much has changed for Soddy-Daisy's softball team. The Lady Trojans still are relying on strong pitching and defense to win at an impressive rate, and with eight of nine starters back from last year's state championship team, they're still the team to beat in Class AAA in Tennessee.
The only visible difference is that after 23 years of helping build Soddy-Daisy softball into one of the state's top sports programs, Clifford Kirk no longer is perched atop a bucket inside the dugout, or griping at umpires from the coach's box on the field.
Kirk retired after leading the Lady Trojans to their eighth state championship last spring and a No. 11 national ranking. But just four months later, realizing retirement didn't really suit him yet, and knowing he would miss the game too much, the 74-year-old Kirk came out of retirement literally to start over again.
He is now in charge of trying to build Sale Creek's program into a Class A contender. Sale Creek principal Tobin Davidson convincing Kirk to return to the diamond was perhaps the slickest recruiting move in area history, considering Kirk's resume of taking 13 teams to state finals. His 10 state titles rank second all-time, and in the 34-year history of the state softball tournament, only five Class AAA teams won back-to-back titles, and Kirk was the coach for three of those (Hixson 1987-88, Soddy-Daisy 1999-2000 and 2006-07).
But his departure has done nothing to change expectations for the program. Six-year assistant Wes Skiles now heads the program along with longtime assistant Lamar Lasley, and with the exception of a few minor tweaks to fit their coaching style, Soddy-Daisy continues to follow the same formula for winning that the program has used for nearly a quarter century.
And that is the greatest tribute to the man who built the program.
"We all respect what Clifford did to build the program," Skiles said. "But it's like when you have great players graduate, you can't dwell on who isn't here. You have to keep going and work with what you do have.
"I take a little bit different approach than Clifford did, I'm a little more laid back than him," Skiles added, in what could rank as one of the all-time biggest understatements. "I've coached against him in middle school, so being on opposite sidelines isn't strange for me. It's not that big a deal for us now.
"Our goal is still the same as it always is here. I don't compare this team to last year's or any previous year, but we want the kids to go out and be the best team they can be this year."
As one of 16 teams going into this weekend's annual Lady Trojan Classic, Soddy-Daisy is 8-1. Among the minor changes Skiles and Lasley have made was to the practice schedule, which they change every day to keep practice fresh for the players. During a coaching clinic at Alabama, Lasley and Skiles noticed a sign that both believe translates to their program as well.
"They have a sign hanging up at Alabama that says, 'Tradition never graduates,'" Lasley said. "I like that. I think that fits us.
"The kids may have a bit of a chip on their shoulder to prove we're still Soddy-Daisy. Everywhere we go people know about our program and want to beat us. We're still the measuring stick for other programs to see where their program is."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.