GAYLESVILLE - Steve Baker is no stranger to Gaylesville softball. He pioneered the program in 1981 in its slow-pitch days and coached until 1985. He returned for a second head-coaching term in the late 1990s, and now he's back to put the program on track again.
Baker officially took over for former coach Steven Miller a couple of weeks ago. Miller, who coached Gaylesville softball the past three seasons, was not renewed as a teacher at Gaylesville following the end of the 2016-17 school year.
"I'm excited about coming back," Baker said. "I've seen these girls play other sports. I knew they were young and I knew they could be good at softball. I talked to Coach (Scott) Hays and Coach (Curt) Hendon and told them if softball ever came open I would love to coach again. I know the potential is here.
"I told the parents the first day of practice I felt like I rode into town and shot the sheriff because I was taking the place of a coach everybody loved. I told the girls I'm not replacing Coach Miller. We're starting over, and that's what we've preached every practice. I told them they don't know how to win yet. We've got to learn how to win, and we started today (Friday)."
What Baker was referring to was the Lady Trojans' play dates with Valley Head and Class 5A Douglas on Friday. Behind patience at the plate and aggressive base running, the Lady Trojans defeated Valley Head 11-1. They proved competitive against Douglas, but fell 2-0 and 7-3.
"I saw from the first day of practice every person on the team can field and every person can bat. We really don't have a weakness," Baker said. "I don't know why we haven't won in the past, but we're going to win this year."
Hays, Gaylesville's principal, said Baker has "a good rapport with the community."
"One of the dynamics is the parents of these girls who are playing now were folks he coached when he was here before," Hays said. " He spent his career teaching here and basically retired from here. He's kept up with what's going on at the school. He comes to games. He knew we had some young, talented softball players. He knew the team was in good shape and he's been coaching youth league softball, so he hasn't been out of the game."
Rising junior Madelyn Mitchell and upcoming sophomore Haylee Brewster said the team has adjusted to Baker's style in the short time they've practiced with him.
"We're all starting to accept him," Mitchell said. "Our first practice, he explained everything. Later on in the (first) week, everybody started liking him more and more. He didn't get asked to come back. He wanted to come back to us, and that means a lot."
Brewster said she already knew a little bit about Baker's reputation even before he came on board.
"I'd never met him before, but my sister-in-law played for him and I knew he was a really good coach," she said. "He's brought a lot of confidence to our team that I didn't know we had. He's pumped us all up. I think he's done a really good job so far.
"Everyone took it to heart that Coach Miller was gone, but one thing he didn't want us to do was dwell on it. He didn't want us to stop playing because he wasn't here. Although we've got a new coach, we knew we still wanted to give it our all."
That's a comforting thing for Hays. He said he appreciates the players and the parents for moving forward.
"They've been very mature about it," he said. "They were disappointed and upset, but they realize that it is what it is and the program's going on. They're going to play softball for Gaylesville and not for a particular person. We appreciate that. They know we've still got a softball program and we need to move forward. I think they've gotten behind (Baker) and are doing what they need to do now to help the program."
Hays also praised Miller's professionalism of keeping the softball team on schedule up until his last day at Gaylesville.
"He had everything organized and had the summer put together," Hays said. "He did an admirable job of coaching softball and we're proud of what he did. He put a program together. He worked with the junior high girls and brought them along. He did things in the summer and the offseason to try and get them better for the future. Coach Baker is going to be the benefactor of that."
Former player and head softball coach Sandi Wheeling will continue to assist Baker next season.
In other Gaylesville coaching news, Hays said Brian Young has been promoted as the Lady Trojans' head varsity volleyball coach. Brantley Hays, Scott Hays' son, will continue as an assistant coach.
"We went through the end-of-the-year tryouts, and the girls seemed to be fine with that," Scott Hays said. "Toward the end of summer we'll start volleyball back up."
Scott Hays also said the Trojans' basketball coaching positions remain "up in the air." He said Hendon still wants to be involved with the program in some capacity, but "we just don't know exactly how." He's also hopeful assistant Gable Lawson will continue to help.
"Coach Hendon has done a good job. He just doesn't necessarily want to be the basketball guy," Scott Hays said. "I've interviewed a few folks and we've got some ideas that haven't panned out yet, but we think by the end of the summer we're going to have somebody who will be the basketball person."