Sale Creek High School's softball team believes Clifford Kirk will be with them in spirit this season.
The Lady Panthers have set out to accomplish the last goal the legendary softball coach wanted to achieve before passing away in November. One last state championship, which would have been Kirk's 11th all-time.
"Before the season the seniors talked and we said first and foremost we wanted to play this season in honor of Clifford," senior catcher Hannah Skiles said. "He cared so much about this program and all of us. We have a great family here at Sale Creek and we all rally together no matter what the circumstance is."
Senior slugger and first baseman Shelby Sullivan began her high school career playing up as an eighth grader for Kirk, who had high expectations for and believed in this year's assembled talent.
Sullivan's favorite memory was when Sale Creek finished runner-up at the Class A state tournament in 2018, a season in which the team was given a spark when Kirk returned after missing time due to a hip injury.
"I remember when he got back the whole team just lit up. His presence just gave you that extra motivation," said Sullivan, who has been a part of 91 wins in her varsity career. "Clifford has always been there for us no matter if we were having a great or bad day. He cared about us when we were in middle school, all through high school. I know he is watching over us and will enjoy watching us play and then even graduate high school this year. He will be there."
At the Clifford and Ruth Kirk Field on Tuesday, Sale Creek jumped ahead early and held on for a 5-4 victory over non-district rival Whitwell who was led by Ava Layne's three RBIs.
Sale Creek scored three runs in the first inning off an RBI double by Alexa Raines and a two-run single by May Wilson. The Lady Panthers stretched their lead to 4-1 in the third on a home run by freshman Brooke Raines, who also reentered the game late to close out the victory from inside the circle.
"Our motto is we serve one another," said Sale Creek head coach Nikki Robbs, who played for Soddy-Daisy, where Kirk amassed many of his 1,100-plus career wins. "We are going to play for our team and have a bigger purpose than just ourselves.
"Clifford believed this group had it in them to win state and wanted this to be his last year he coached, so we are definitely all-in on winning state for him. As long as we keep a strong team spirit and rally around one another, I think this group is going to do really well. Our seniors provide great energy and I believe we can build great momentum around them."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.