Baseball coaches tasked with replacing seniors

DeKalb County School District held its annual baseball media day on Jan. 11 at Tucker High School, giving high school coaches and athletes a chance to preview the upcoming season.

DeKalb had 11 teams in the state playoffs last season, with Marist, St. Pius, and Decatur high schools joining eight DCSD teams—Arabia Mountain, Cedar Grove, Chamblee, Druid Hills, Dunwoody, Southwest DeKalb, and Tucker—in post season play.

Redan survived the longest in the playoffs, forcing a game-three in the Elite Eight. Decatur lost in the Elite Eight in two games.

To return to double-digit playoffs teams and tournament runs, several teams will have to successfully replace big senior classes and welcome new head coaches this season.

One of the teams in that category is Redan, which is tasked with welcoming a new head coach for the second season in a row.

McNair High School alum and current Redan head coach Derwin McNealy said he grew up battling Hall of Fame coach Greg Goodwin’s Redan teams and has coached at Redan before, adding that he feels like he’s “back home.”

“I worked at Redan for three years under head coach Alex Wyche, and then I went to Dutchtown as an assistant and Newton High School as a head coach,” said McNealy.

Redan will have no shortage of talent for McNealy in year one. The Raiders boast athletes such as Collin Brightwell—who has already committed to play baseball for the Oklahoma Sooners in college—and several other high caliber athletes.

Another new head coach is Kyle Smith at Dunwoody. Smith was a state and national champion winning baseball player at Lambert High School in Georgia and spent time with former state championship winning Dunwoody coach Tom Brass before getting to Dunwoody.

“I have a vision with our feeder program to build a championship level program in Dunwoody. Guys have to commit to excellence in every little detail. Baseball is a team game, so all of the things that go into that will be the culture change that we need,” said Smith.

Replacing seniors is another task for DeKalb coaches in 2024. Chamblee lost 12 seniors, Decatur lost 14 seniors, Lakeside lost eight, and several other teams pushed double-digit departures.

However, Chamblee coach Brian Ely said replacing large senior classes can have benefits. According to Ely, it gives teams and coaches a chance to start new. They can coach players in different ways, try new styles of play, and inject the program with new energy.

“They’re an energetic group that likes to play,” said Ely. “It’s kind of a new stimulus to have the younger guys and have them not already know the system. It makes it easier to try out some new things that I’ve wanted to do. There are more question marks than I’m used to, but these guys take care of it.”

Lakeside head coach Brian Granger added that large senior classes exiting can also assist culture changes.

“We’re a more team-oriented team this year. The juniors and sophomores coming up are a little more talented. We’re looking for big things,” said Granger.

New coaches and new athletes are the norm for DeKalb schools, but Lithonia head coach Crystal Savage said she’s trying something new this year by welcoming two girls into the boys’ baseball team.

“We actually have a couple of girls on the team,” said Savage, who is also the only female head baseball coach in DeKalb. “One girl from the softball team tried out and made it. Lyric [Benjamin] played in eighth grade. She played with the boys then too and didn’t want to play softball. Kyla [Phillips] plays softball and she wanted to keep playing ball-sports [during the softball offseason].”

Savage spent the previous two seasons at Towers before taking over at Lithonia. She said she considered moving back to her home state of Arkansas but added that DeKalb’s support kept her around.

“[DeKalb administrators] have always been strong promoters of me. I almost went back to Arkansas. I was ready at the end of last year, but … I love being in DeKalb, I’ve never had an issues in DeKalb,” said Savage.

Baseball starts for DeKalb teams on Feb. 7. For full schedules and ticket insurrections, visit dekalbschoolsga.org/athletics.

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