SPRING GARDEN – The Spring Garden varsity baseball program is turning to a familiar face to lead it this season.
Former baseball coach Tony Benefield is back as the Panthers’ skipper after Cory Sears decided to step down after just one season at the helm, citing family reasons. Sears’s wife Lauren is currently expecting the couple’s third child in addition to four-year-old Dayton and six-year-old Emory.
Sears went 8-4 with the Panthers last season before it was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole thing about stepping away was to focus on family, make sure everything on my end was taken care of,” Sears said. “I don’t want the guys to be worried about my end of the situation. Say we’re playing on a Monday night and then Lauren has some complications or something happens, something with family, especially with COVID. I didn’t want to have to step away from the team because of that and be there 40 percent, 50 percent of the time. I really wanted to focus on my end with my family. I know it seems a little selfish, but knowing we have a lot of seniors who are really talented, I want them to focus on baseball and getting better.”
And who better to step in for Sears than Benefield? He coached many of the current varsity players in junior high.
Prior to Sears and former head coach Barrett Ragsdale, Benefield coached the Panther varsity squad for eight years. He accumulated 118 wins and had two 20-win seasons, including an area championship and five area runners-up before resigning following the 2015 season.
“I really like this group of kids,” Benefield said. “They were some of my favorites I ever had in class, especially the juniors and seniors. That’s really what played into it for me taking the job, that I really like the kids. It’s not just because they’re good baseball players.”
Sears said he couldn’t think of anyone better than Benefield for the job.
“He’s had a lot more experience than I have, and I know he’ll get the guys where they need to be,” Sears said. “We have a talented group of kids and they know how to play baseball. They know how to win. They’ve won before. It was a tough decision for me. I hate stepping in and then stepping right back out. I wanted things to be consistent, but they know Coach Benefield. It’s not like somebody else is coming in and taking over.
“I’ve worked with him on our junior high team. He’s coached them at the junior high level, and he’s been the varsity coach before. He’s the guy I’d pick his brain about certain things. It’ll be a very smooth transition.”
Helping Benefield with the Panthers is another coaching veteran in John Wilson.
“Coach Wilson and I talked about it, and he helped me decide,” Benefield said. “If he weren’t helping me, it would be hard for me to do it. He’s a great help and has years of experience.”
Benefield will also have two more assistants in Greg Maddox and Logan Pruitt.
Benefield has already begun helping the Panther baseball players in preparation for the 2020 season. The pitchers began throwing last Wednesday. Spring Garden is scheduled to open the season Feb. 16 against Pleasant Valley.
“It’s gone well,” Benefield said. “I have about 15 of the varsity players out there now and another seven or eight who we won’t get until basketball is over, but we’ve got a good group of them out there right now, plus a ton of junior high kids. We’ve got 25 on junior high this year.
“I think it’s going to be fine. We have a ton of talent. If everybody does what they’re supposed to do and buys in, we should be fine.”
Although Sears has stepped down as head coach of the Panthers, he hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching baseball in the future.
“The plan is to eventually get back at some capacity in baseball, whether that be as an assistant or volunteer, or maybe head coach one day of junior high or varsity,” he said.
“Whatever it may be, the plan is eventually to get back there, but right now I want to take care of things on my end. My door is always open. I’m always willing to help do anything at any capacity.”
Spring Garden’s baseball coaching moves aren’t the only ones made recently within Cherokee County.
On Tuesday, the board of education approved former Cedar Bluff football defensive coordinator Torey McDaniel’s move to Spring Garden as the school’s new assistant principal.
Replacing McDaniel on the Tiger football staff is former Cherokee County High School defensive coordinator and Ohatchee head coach Nathan Wehunt.
Wehunt comes to Cedar Bluff after a brief stint at New Hope, and prior to that, Coosa High School in Rome, Ga.
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