Two of Cherokee County’s most experienced baseball coaches – both in Class 2A, Area 12 – have decided to step down.
Sand Rock’s Jeff Norris is retiring from Sand Rock, while Spring Garden’s Tony Benefield is giving up his baseball duties after returning back to the dugout for a season.
Norris was head baseball coach at Sand Rock for 15 seasons (21 overall). He guided the Wildcats to a 13-8 record in 2021.
“I was hired by Roland Hendon in 1990, and he wanted three things: a math teacher to push Sand Rock students, a secondary coach for Coach (Russell) Jacoway, and someone to build a baseball program,” Norris said. “The first thing was easy. I was good at math and knew how to share it. I knew how to play in the secondary, I had to learn how to coach it. But baseball was my game. It came easy for me and I thought I knew how to coach it.
“I don’t know how many we won or lost, just that we had a good time most days. If it is not fun, they won’t play.”
One of the things Norris proud of is the development of the Wildcats’ baseball field.
“During my time we have built one of the nicest 2A baseball facilities around,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will last. The new school building may be in right field. I hope not. That is 31 years of work on my part.”
Norris said he didn’t think he’d coach as long as he did. He said he just “never found a reason to leave.”
“I thought I would last another year or two, but I just don’t have the drive to keep going,” he said. “Thirty-one years of 50-70 hour weeks, seven months a year, wears on you. If I was not a core subject teacher and department head for 22 years, I might have been able to continue.
“I have 22 acres of grass, and I’m going to watch it grow. This spring, Mr. Hendon’s grandson played shortstop. Maybe he thinks I was a good hire.”
The Sand Rock community thinks so. At the Wildcat athletic banquet on Tuesday evening, he received two standing ovations and a plaque commemorating his years of service.
After just one season back in the varsity dugout, Benefield has resigned as Spring Garden’s baseball coach. He guided the Panthers to a 25-16 season in 2021, including a Class 2A state quarterfinal berth this year. It was his third 20-plus win season in nine years with Spring Garden.
Benefield has guided the Panthers to 143 wins in his baseball career, including an area championship and five area runners-up before resigning following the 2015 season.
“I’m glad I was able to coach one last season, even though I took over the team last minute,” said Benefield, who took over for Cory Sears back in January.
Benefield was also part of several other successful Panther squads in the past – both in varsity and the junior high ranks.
“We won a lot of big games, area championships, playoff series, and so on, but some of my greatest memories came during the years I was coaching junior high only at Spring Garden,” he said. “The team won nearly all their games over a three-year period, won three straight county championships, and was probably the most coachable team I’ve ever had. I really enjoyed helping to build the program and coach my two sons (Grant and Elliot) along the way.”
Benefield said the reason he took over the varsity job this year was for this year’s junior and senior class. He said he’d built a strong bond with them, both in the classroom and on the field.
“I love Spring Garden and all the kids I teach and coach here,” Benefield said. “We didn’t accomplish our main goal this year, which was to win a state championship, but we did make a few more great baseball memories, like the Game 2 win against Westbrook.”
Benefield said he’s always enjoyed working with and developing the Panther pitchers the past 15 years, and left the door open to continue staying involved with the program.
“That’s really where my strength lies, so I may try to do that in the future if and when I’m ever needed,” he said.