Jeremy Kemp never had reservations about taking the job as Cherokee Bluff’s first baseball coach. A youthful roster, cobbled together from different schools, had to compete in a tough Region 7-3A.
Prior tradition for the Bears? This group was the first to get a say in their initial legacy.
And the Bears passed the test with flying colors in 2019.
Now, Cherokee Bluff (15-13) is getting a crack at the state playoffs.
“We’ve definitely had some bad days along the way, but the guys are believing a little bit more in themselves and playing a little bit better everyday,” Kemp said. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Today, the Bears visit Ringgold, playing two games in the first-round, best-of-three series in northwest Georgia. If there’s a split, Game 3 will be Thursday in Ringgold.
Steady play during the region schedule made the playoffs possible for the Bears.
“I’m proud of them for taking at least one game from everybody in the region,” said Kemp, who previously led a decade-long run of success at Gainesville High. “I think that’s a pretty big accomplishment, especially in a region as good as ours.”
Bears players are elated for the opportunity, even though they are the fourth-seed from their region.
“Oh my God, I’ve been thinking about it every night since we made it,” Bears senior Parker Shope said. “It’s hard to go to sleep, especially with this being my first playoff run, individually. But just as a team, I’m so proud of how far we’ve come from the beginning of the season. I really cannot wait for it with these guys.”
Kemp added, “Making the playoffs proves that we are committed to winning, and hopefully that’s going to be the trend for a long time to come.”
Once region play began, Cherokee Bluff earned a sweep against East Hall.
However, losing 2 of 3 the next week to Dawson County was the first hurdle for Kemp’s club to overcome.
Cherokee Bluff buckled down the rest of the way riding the highs and lows of a first-year program, locking up its playoff spot in the final week of the regular season.
The work for Kemp this season was never-ending but rewarding.
“There is a lot of work to be done, and you’re getting pulled in every direction,” Kemp said. “It’s tough. I think it’s something that if anybody got the opportunity to do it, it’s definitely something they should do. It’s been fun.”
Kemp has drawn from alternatives avenues to instill a tradition at Cherokee Bluff. Signs line the interior of the Bears home dugout. One condenses quality at-bats to a nine-bulleted list. Before reaching the on-deck circle, players review their imminent mission — to get a hit, walk, hit by pitch, sacrifice fly, etc.
Another sign in the dugout reflects Kemp’s tasks to build a culture: “You cannot practice soft and expect to play hard.”
But the mainstay sign is framed above the team bench, deadset in the middle. “The name on the front of your jersey represents who you play for. The name on the back of the jersey represents who raised you.”
The focus does not seem to be on wins, but on the smaller things that help cultivate victories.
“I want the kids to act the right way no matter what,” Kemp said. “They’ve done a great job of that.”
After posting more than 200 wins with the Red Elephants, Kemp isn’t looking back.
The state tournament begins with a program the Bears’ coach knows well.
“They’re (Ringgold) a great program,” Kemp said. “I’ve actually played them once in the playoffs in 2012. Brent Tucker does a great job. They’re one of the main teams to beat in the state. I hope they take us lightly, and we can go up there and surprise them.”
Though the matchup will be tough, a program reaching the playoffs in its inaugural season is an accomplishment to savor.