Keith has CHS program headed in right direction

By Rebecca Pierson
STAR Staff
rpierson@starhq.com

   If there is ever a situation where you can call a losing season a comeback, it is in the case of the Cloudland High School softball team, which finished 13-15 overall, 11-13 in the regular season.
   Gary Keith took the reins as head coach for the 2004 season, and took a team that had only won two games in the prior five seasons, and coached them into a .469 winning percentage for the season. He had previously been co-coach and head coach from 1980 until 1983, but hadn't coached softball since then.
   During the preseason, when the Cloudland community was saying that Keith was going to get the girls to actually win some games, Keith said that he didn't make anyone any promises with the other established teams in the conference.
   "With Unaka, University High and North Greene, who am I going to beat?" he said. "We are playing North and Volunteer, and those are established programs. I am not promising you any victories, but I promise you they will know how to play."
   The team has a few members that play down at Unaka or in Elizabethton, and some work on their skills on their own in the off-season. This takes a big commitment from the parents and the girls.
   "I wanted some quality wins," he said. "We beat Sullivan North, and I thought that was a quality win. We beat Mitchell County. At Unaka, we couldn't beat Mitchell Co. out. They just killed us. We improved and came back to beat them, and that was another quality win.
   "I thought that beating North Greene in the playoffs was a quality win. Next year, I would like not only to be able to play University High and Unaka close, I would like to be able to beat them -- to take another step."
   Cloudland knocked off North Greene 11-7 in the district tournament. In April at Roan Mountain, the Lady 'Landers nearly knocked off Unaka in regular-season play in a game that lasted nine innings with a 5-4 loss.
   The team held off the Lady Rangers until the top-of-the-ninth run by Unaka locked in the lead. In an early match-up, they lost by only two runs.
   Many members of the team give complete credit to their new head coach, who not only supports them athletically, but also on a personal level.
   "He made it a lot more fun this year," said right fielder Jessica Lunsford. "We worked harder this year. He got different pitchers and worked with them. He got more people out to play. That helped a lot just having more people to pick from. We practiced a lot."
   "I don't know of exactly one thing that he did. He just did a lot to help us," she said. "He gave up food like everyday. He would always buy food for us all the time. He was really nice, but when we had a game or something he was serious about it. Really, he was just a great coach."