When the road to get somewhere is long and difficult, it makes the destination that much more appreciated once you get there.
The Calhoun Lady Jackets softball team and head coach Diane Smith completed a hard-earned, Class AAA state championship run last Saturday in Columbus by defeating Cook County 4-2 in the finals. The win finished off a 4-0 trip at the Elite Eight, an 8-0 record through the postseason and a 14-0 record dating back to the first round of the Region 6-AAA Playoffs.
That all followed a roller-coaster regular season as the Lady Jackets dealt with all kinds of adversity, injuries, player losses, inexperience and inconsistency. But as she always does, Smith figured out a way to get everything she could out of her team, and that paid off with the program’s fourth state title in the last five years. That’s what coaching legends do, though, and that’s exactly what Smith is, a legend.
The Calhoun Times recently caught up with the veteran coach of more than 30 years to discuss the state championship journey, her seniors and underclassmen that played a huge role, the program’s continued success on the highest level, how much she is already looking forward to next year and how much longer she is going to patrol the dugout as a coach, among other things.
Here’s what she had to say:
CT: What were your emotions when you saw that last out at first base against Cook last Saturday to win the state title? How much did this team overcome this season to earn that state title, and why does that make this one so much sweeter?
SMITH: There is no way to describe the utopia I felt when I knew we had won the game and the championship. In fact, it was hard to comprehend that the title was ours once again. Of course it was a feeling of great joy and happiness. It took a while for the reality of the moment to set in. Most of all it was an emotion of deep satisfaction for my girls and for our school. There is no way to name or describe the obstacles the girls overcame to earn this championship. Much of the happenings and incidents during the season have been well publicized and discussed. The misgivings so many people expressed never distracted our girls. They hung in there and kept fighting until the end. Yes, it made winning the championship sweeter because so many thought we could not do it. At various stages along the journey people wrote us off as a team that would not be near the top when the season ended.
CT: How proud are you of the three seniors that stuck with this team through the entire season and how happy are you for them to go out on top? How much did their leadership and attitude contribute to the team’s great success?
SMITH: Everyone knows about the three senior starters quitting the team after the fourth game and the day we were about to load the bus to head to play Ringgold, one of our strongest region opponents from past years. It was a jolt to destroy any inclination of winning for many teams. It left us with the three seniors who stayed the course and many freshmen. In fact, to everyone’s surprise we started only one and defeated Ringgold 7-4 with eight underclassmen in the lineup. That victory with our freshman Maggie McBrayer in the circle might have been an unseen and unspoken moment of coming together and instilling an attitude of confidence in the hearts and minds of all our kids. As far as the three seniors who were with us until the end, they displayed a serious confidence in themselves and the younger players. I will love them forever for the attitude they showed and the adhesiveness they provided during the rough times. Tori Roper, Adella Carver and Maddie Bumgardner contributed to the success of this season in an intangible way that cannot be expressed on paper.
CT: How much did you see your freshmen and sophomores grow up before your eyes this season, and how much maturity did they show at the Elite Eight as key parts of the title run?
SMITH: We played some of the best teams in Georgia. To watch our girls perform provided a view of a group I, and all others, could not tell were young and less experienced. They did grow up greatly during the season and when it came time to put it all on the line in Region and State Playoffs they brought their best mental, emotional and physical game to the park. Their confidence in their personal ability and the ability of their teammates was greatly evident during the games of the Elite Eight. That display of maturity was indeed a key part of our winning it all. As usual, Calhoun Middle Softball Head Coach, sent us a great group of freshmen girls. They grew and developed before our eyes and at the end were ready to demand the big prize.
CT: Piggybacking on that question, how gutsy was Maggie McBrayer’s effort at the Elite Eight, pitching every pitch of all four games and pitching well doing it?
SMITH: There is no way to describe the performance of a freshman pitcher who pitched all four games and every pitch in those four games as we fought our way to the State Title. “How gutsy was Maggie’s effort in the State Tournament?” She showed little emotion in all the moments of the game. Without an air of cockiness, Maggie displayed an air of confidence which would have been exceptional for a seasoned veteran of high school battles. If she ever had a doubt in her mind, it was not evident. As she did all year long, she quietly and without display of showmanship, went about her task each and every inning. When the last out was sounded, I am sure Maggie was excited beyond description. Yet, she was the same young lady who came and pitched her way into the record books in a calm and unassuming manner during the course of what presented her with more challenges than any young lady should have to face. When the history of Calhoun Lady Jacket softball is written the story of Maggie McBrayer’s performance and accomplishment in her freshman year will be a highlight feature to excite the heart of every reader.
CT: A few years ago when you were still without a state title (including some close calls) after so many years of coaching, what does it mean to you now to have won four in the last five years? What does that say about the strength and consistency of this program?
SMITH: The first state title and the others were all exciting and very rewarding. When we won the first championship in 2013, I said in response to the large crowd gathered there that this victory was for all who had ever put on a Lady Jackets uniform and for all those who would wear one in the future. To that end we have dedicated ourselves. Winning four in the last five years has been great. I stray to tell you that this 2017 title is the one that wraps up into one big excitable package what our program means. This year’s victory was the most emotional, excitable and rewarding of any I have ever participated in. This year gave meaning and depth to all other efforts. As mentioned, this is one we were not supposed to win. How much more pleasure can a coach receive than winning the unexpected. Our girls were great. I will never forget the 2017 team and the girls that made up this great team.
CT: With so many players coming back next year, how much are you already looking forward to the 2018 season and hopefully another memorable trip to Columbus to defend the title?
SMITH: It is true we have all but three of the players on our roster returning next year. Again, Coach Tony Lindsey is sending us 10 players from his outstanding 11th consecutive Middle School Region Championship team. Look at that number again: 10 players is one more than a full softball team. Not having enough good players is a terrible dilemma. Having too many presents a nearly unsolvable problem. This is what challenges coaches. We look forward to the challenge. I am looking forward to the 2018 season with the same attitude I had for 2017…We will be going to Columbus and win the title again.
CT: And last but not least, how much more softball do you have in you as a coach? Do you even give any thought to life after coaching or is that still far down the road in your mind?
SMITH: Coaching softball in some capacity has been a big factor in my life since I was 17 years old. I have many more years in my tank. For several years various people have in subtle ways suggested it might be time for the Old Coach to step aside. Most, but not all, of the suggestions were in friendly tones and admiring terms. Of course, various events in life determine the answer to many of career questions. I doubt there will be much life left after my coaching days. Actually, that is my way of saying the thought of life after coaching doesn’t even enter my mind. Remember, I have a young daughter who has just begun a head coaching career. I want to be close around in her years.