Class 5A-7A All-Area baseball: Smith led Athens baseball to renewed success

Jun. 1—ATHENS — Coming into 2024, Chuck Smith had a feeling that it could be a special year.

The Athens baseball coach turned out to be right on the money.

Athens finished the season 25-14 and advanced to the Class 6A state quarterfinals for the first time since 2011. Because of this, Smith was chosen as The Daily's Class 5A-7A Coach of the Year.

"I think it all started with the senior group we had in 2023. Those guys put forth what they wanted to do and led us to a strong season last year," Smith said. "This year's group just kept that going. Nothing really changed."

Smith said expectations were high coming into 2024 and it's a credit to the players that they were able to meet them.

"We had a lot of guys coming back and as coaches we felt like we had a talented team, but every team is different," Smith said. "Coaches can overthink things sometimes, but the players decided they were going to come in and keep it rolling and that's what happened."

Athens started strong, winning 10 of its first 14 games, but it wasn't until the midway point of the season that the team felt it was capable of big things.

"We had won some games, but when we played at the Perfect Game tournament, that was when things changed," Smith said. "We beat the defending state champions from Mississippi and that was when our guys realized, 'Hey we can be pretty good.'"

The highlight of Athens' season came in the second round of the playoffs in a best two out of three series against Gardendale, a traditionally strong 6A program. The Golden Eagles held the usually strong-hitting Rockets to just two runs in their two wins as they advanced to the third round for the first time in almost 15 years.

"I really wanted our guys to experience the feeling of a packed playoff environment and the series against Gardendale gave us that opportunity," Smith said. "They had a lineup that could really hit and our arms on the mound kept them off-balanced."

Athens will lose some key players off this year's team like pitcher Grayson Hays, shortstop Jack Elliott and outfielder Caiden Dumas, but Smith still feels a standard has been set.

"We have some guys coming back and we feel like we're going to continue to roll," said Smith. "Some young guys will have to step up to fill some holes, but we feel good about our future."

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