Clifford Kirk is no stranger to softball region tournaments, even though his new team is. But that won't be the case after Monday.
This year Kirk, head coach of 10 Tennessee Class AAA high school softball championship teams in his career, took over a fledgling Sale Creek program that played to his standards this past week in the District 6-A tournament. The No. 3-seeded Lady Panthers rewarded him with yet another district title Saturday when they defeated second-seeded Whitwell 6-2 at Sale Creek.
Whitwell had forced a second championship game by winning 4-0 earlier in the day.
Sale Creek (20-16-1) will host Arts & Sciences in one of Monday's Region 3 semifinals. Grace Academy, which beat CSAS 1-0 for the District 5 championship Saturday, will host Whitwell (19-15-1). Both games are tenatively set for 7 p.m.
At the beginning of the season Kirk was looking at a seniorless group of players who in the recent past were thinking more about trying to win a district game than the district tournament. The Lady Panthers' joy was on display with numerous hugs being shared after the last out.
"I'm proud of every girl on this team," Kirk said. "A lot of them aren't better athletes than what I had at Soddy-Daisy, but I don't know if they worked any harder. If they work hard, you're happy with them."
Junior catcher Tricia Chauncey went 3-for-3 with a double and scored two runs in the final game. She said the team improved little by little over the course of the season, and beating top-seeded Marion County in Friday's winners-bracket final reinforced what the Lady Panthers already believed.
"I'm really, really excited," Chauncey said. "This is the first time any of us have come this far. We're so happy, but I know we can go further."
A four-run first inning was the catalyst in Sale Creek's victory, just as the Lady Tigers' three-run first sparked the game they won.
"We just made too many fundamental mistakes," Whitwell coach Grace Pickett said of her team's loss. "You can't put yourself in a hole like that in the first inning. You've got to crawl back after that. It all goes back to making plays."
Kirk has one Soddy-Daisy transfer on his team in junior Brittany Lanham, who came on as a relief pitcher early in the first game and was the winning pitcher in the second game. In all she threw 12 1/3 innings and allowed three runs, two earned. She gave up seven hits and no walks while striking out seven.
"Brittany has made a big difference for us," Chauncey said. "She's one of our best players. She pulls us back up when we're down."
Whitwell got a two-out RBI single from Kathleen Sledge in the sixth inning to pull within 4-2 in the title game, but Sale Creek responded with two runs in the bottom of the inning, including Savana Weaver's steal of home.
"Any momentum they had going for them," Kirk said, "that brought it right back to us."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.