CENTRE - Taking over an already successful program can be somewhat intimidating, but Will Smith feels up to the challenge.
Smith was recently named Cherokee County High School's new head baseball coach, filling the spot left by co-coaches Fran and Coty Blanchard, who both stepped down at the end of last season following a successful two-year stint.
The Blanchards took on the head coaching duties eight games into the 2016 season and led Cherokee County to a 25-9 overall record and a berth in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
Last season, Cherokee County went 25-10 and captured a quarterfinal playoff berth.
"The blueprint is in place for big things," Smith said. "The athletes are here. The facilities are here. I'm very appreciative to Fran and Coty for getting us to this spot. Hopefully I can come in, get established, and maybe we can do even bigger things. That's the goal."
Although this is Smith's first head-coaching position, he's no stranger to baseball. He's beginning his 15th season of coaching the sport in some capacity.
Smith, a native of Glencoe, was a varsity assistant there for nine years. He was also an assistant to former Spring Garden head baseball coach Tony Benefield for a pair of seasons and also assisted with basketball. Smith has also coached at Gulf Shores and at Etowah under Coach Larry Foster. He spent this past season at Sardis.
"We're very proud to have Coach Smith," Cherokee County High School principal Seth Neyman said. "I've known him from his time at Spring Garden, when my brother (Wes Neyman) was assistant principal there. It didn't take long to do some searching and figure out we had a good one here.
"Working with Tony Benefield at Spring Garden, I know what a baseball mind he is. I know that's good experience. It curtails Coach Foster's greatness. I know he's been around some good programs, and I believe he's ready to be a head coach.
"What better situation than to come in here? We're coming off two very strong years, and three years where we've qualified for the playoffs. The field is in great condition. The finances are in order. The talent level is there. We've got a resurgence going, and we were looking for a long-term guy. He's here to establish himself and we're ready for that. I believe we've got the right guy to skipper it."
If Smith is the least bit intimidated about taking the baseball coaching reigns from the Blanchards, he's not showing it. He seems to be embracing the challenge.
"I went into Day's Sporting Goods (in Centre) the other day and they said 'We'll give you one loss, maybe two, but after that we're going to be after you,'" Smith joked. "It sunk in right there that there are some expectations involved, and I want to make sure I do right by Cherokee County High School. I want to make sure I do right by our players. That's a little more nerve-wracking than the coaching part, just making sure I do the best job that I can do. If I'm nervous about anything, it's that."
Smith said the Blanchards have done everything they can so far to help his transition a smooth one. The day after his interview, one of the first phone calls he received the next morning was from Fran Blanchard.
"We just talked baseball. He's been nothing but positive to me," Smith said. "He's even talked with my wife (Breann) about any concerns she's had. He's shown us the facilities. He's just been great."
One of Smith's major hurdles during the off season will be replacing 14 seniors from last season's Class 4A state quarterfinal squad, including three all-state selections. He'll also be playing in a tough area, which includes perennial baseball powerhouses Hokes Bluff and Jacksonville, as well as a competitive county.
"I haven't met the players yet, but I have called some other coaches who have played these boys in the past and they said 'Coach, the talent's there. We played some of these kids in junior high, and the talent's there.' I'm very, very excited about that," Smith said. "I heard I've got a couple of starters coming back, and they say we've got nine pitchers on staff. With those new pitch count rules, that's huge.
"There's really not a better situation to be in. The field looks great. I hear we're going to do some small renovations here and there to the field in the next year or so to make it even better. I want to thank the Blanchards for leaving us in a good spot. They've left us in a good spot with talent, facilities, and they've raised the expectations. It's something I'm excited about, and I'm ready to meet that challenge."