When Chestatee High administrators offered Sutton Shirley the position of girls basketball head coach, he didn’t pause even a moment to weigh his options.
“There was no, ‘Let me think about it,” Shirley said. “It was an immediate acceptance.”
That had little to do with the job representing the opportunity for his first head coaching gig. The 30-year-old said he had turned down a few similar offers during his time as an assistant for the East Hall girls team because they weren’t the “right fit.”
Chestatee and Shirley, however, form a near-perfect pairing of program and coach.
Shirley has been linked to the school since its opening in 2002, largely because his father Lewis was the founding coach for the Lady War Eagles. He also spent two years coaching the Chestatee Middle seventh-and eighth-grade girls teams before joining Justin Wheeler’s staff at East Hall for the 2014-15 season.
“The Chestatee community has always been big in my life,” Shirley said. “Ever since it opened, I had been around it as a spectator and helping out. Getting to be the head coach now, this is almost like coming home for me.”
After years of being around the Lady War Eagles program, he now gets to mold it to his liking.
That work started with summer practices, which concluded last month and centered around installing an up-tempo style Shirley borrowed from Wheeler and former East Hall boys coach Joe Dix.
On top of Chestatee players adjusting to new schemes, Shirley will be their third coach in as many years. He replaced interim coach Chris Guthrie, who took that post after former coach Web Daniel resigned last November amid allegations of sexual assault against a student — a felony — and misdemeanor sexual battery.
But Shirley isn’t deterred by the rapid coaching turnover, and he even intends to use it to his advantage. By incorporating strengths and skills instilled under the previous regimes, Shirley plans to piece together a strategy that will maximize his personnel.
“Seeing how they played in other styles allows me to pick and choose what’s best for us now,” said Shirley, a 2006 North Hall graduate.
He’s also quite familiar with Chestatee’s roster. In addition to having coached four of the team’s five seniors when they were seventh-graders, Shirley attended the Lady War Eagles’ final stretch of games to scout them after he interviewed for the job in early February.
“During that time, I was taking notes on what I wanted and what I didn’t want,” he said. “I knew a bit of what I was getting into.”
Shirley’s still adapting to the managerial side of being a head coach, though he said he enjoys the “freedom” that comes with running a program.
He prepped for such responsibilities for the past four years as Wheeler’s top assistant. During Shirley’s stint on the Lady Vikings’ staff, East Hall won 74 games and qualified for the playoffs in each season.
The Lady Vikings went to the state semifinals in 2015 and most recently reached the second round of the state tournament, creating consistent success that Shirley hopes to channel at Chestatee.
Despite losing leading scorer Lindsey Caudell and point guard Peri Satterfield — who will be a community coach this year, Shirley said — to graduation, the Lady War Eagles are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances.
Following summer workouts, Shirley is confident Chestatee can keep the momentum going even while transitioning to new management.
“There’s a big adjustment period right now in terms of style of play and getting used to each other’s personalities,” Shirley said. “There has been a lot of learning; them learning me, and me learning them. But they played very hard and worked very hard for me this summer, so I’m optimistic for the future.”
He has every reason to be now that he’s back among familiar faces in the place his coaching career started. Shirley said he already has solid relationships with many teachers at both the high school and middle school, which influenced him to take the job without hesitation.
Shirley also has the chance to hold the title his father once occupied when he founded the Lady War Eagles program that became such a big part of his life.
“It means something to me,” Shirley said. “ … I’m sure he’ll be watching a lot of the games. It’s special to me to come in and follow in his footsteps to some degree.”