Baylor softball coach Kelli Smith sits at her desk surrounded by state championship trophies and personal mementos. Smith has won 13 state titles since taking over as the coach of the Lady Red Raiders in 2003. She won two other state crowns as a player at the school in the mid-1990s.
photo by John Shearer
Almost every late May for the last 15 or 20 years, the Lady Red Raiders of Baylor School have blossomed like area red roses.
As was recently documented by the sports staff of chattanoogan.com and other local media, the team won another state Division II-AA softball title again this year, beating runner-up Girls Preparatory School – another state perennial power.
For coach Kelli Smith, this marks an almost unprecedented 13th state title since her first year as head coach of Baylor during the 2003 season.
And that is combined with two additional state titles she won as a Baylor player in the mid-1990s, making her uniquely connected to every title the program has won.
But if you expect coach Smith to be one of those also-successful coaches with the steely eyes like has been found on some of the legendary women’s college basketball coaches past and present, think again.
She is instead known for often having a trademark smile, greeting people in an amicable and easily approachable manner, and seeming humble.
But her eyes no doubt do light up when talking about how fortunate she feels at being able to get players to buy into her style.
While she does admit to having to raise her voice to get her players’ attention maybe three or four times a season, and she points out that having good players obviously trumps good coaching, she says she simply tries to focus a little on defense and a lot on relationships.
“You’ve got to be pretty good in the circle” (with good pitching), she said. “I’ve always been a huge proponent of defense.
“And coaching is about relationships and getting kids to buy in – playing for each other and playing for the school. There’s a nice balance. I have been fortunate to have a lot of great kids who enforce those intangibles.”
And regarding those rare times she feels like she has had to raise her voice, she said with a chuckle that it usually deals with the factors her team can control, like their hustle, attitude and work ethic.
For coach Smith, hustling and trying to have a good attitude about sports came at a young age. The daughter of Diane and the late Donald “Pop’ Howard grew up in the Cloverdale subdivision of Hixson not too far from the once-large DuPont plant, where her father worked for 35 years.
She spent plenty of Saturdays in the fall going to Tennessee Vol football games in Neyland Stadium with her family, including older brothers Donny and Chris, and she admitted early 1990s quarterback Heath Shuler was probably her first star crush.
She also became enamored with the play of another male athlete – the almost acrobatically skilled St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith. She even wore his No. 1 jersey number while at Baylor and learned they shared the same birthday of Dec. 26.
Coach Smith ended up at the independent school off Signal Mountain Road after playing for two years at Red Bank Middle School under coaches Linda Carter and Teresa Brannon, two coaches she greatly respects. Of coach Carter, she said, “I would run through a brick wall for that lady. The impact she had on my life was incredible.”
Coach Smith also enjoyed playing at Baylor for coach Doug Moser after having attended his basketball camp as a youngster. She had played travel softball with top Baylor pitcher Amy Robertson, who was Kelli’s senior by one year, and quickly felt at home at Baylor when she enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 1991.
After the Lady Red Raiders won state titles during her underclass years of 1993 and 1994, she received an offer to play softball at Georgia Tech under coach Regina Thomaselli. But while diving for a ball during a spring break game her freshman year in 1996, she damaged her labrum that was already bothering her as well as her rotator cuff.
Her playing career was pretty much over, but – unknown to her -- she was just getting started at figuring out how to continue to be successfully involved in softball.
She eventually moved back to Chattanooga and finished up her degree work at UTC and also did some coaching, including helping with a travel team, the Chattanooga Stars, with whom local attorney Gary Patrick was involved.
But while she was in Atlanta before coming back, several other important events happened. She met her future husband, Craig Smith, an Ohioan who was there working in construction. Instead of continuing to make catches as a player after her injury, she ended up being a catch for him.
She also had an opportunity while in Atlanta to meet favorite player Ozzie Smith, with emphasis on opportunity. She had been to some Cardinal games in St. Louis, including while playing travel ball as a youngster. But she was going to get a chance to meet him at an Atlanta Braves game through former Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High star Rick Honeycutt, who was pitching for St. Louis and whose daughter, Holly, she knew from Baylor.
Arrangements had been made for her to come down near the field during batting practice, but when the moment arrived, she just decided not to follow through with it, saying she wanted to not change her view of him she liked from afar.
But as a coach, she would learn how to build close relationships, and that would be an asset. While she was continuing to do some coaching, Baylor athletic director Austin Clark, who had been her adviser at Baylor, took notice and offered her a chance to come to Baylor.
“Coach Clark was real instrumental in the doors opening up for me,” she said.
Coach Smith and her husband, Craig, had married in 1998 at the Baylor Chapel, and she had little trouble convincing him to move to Chattanooga when she had an opportunity to go to Baylor because the school colors were similar to his beloved Ohio State’s. And Baylor’s rival – McCallie – wore blue and started with an M – just like Michigan.
She initially coached some middle school sports and assisted the varsity softball team under coach Jenny Green, a former UTC softball player under Ralph and Karen Weekly. During the 2002 season, coach Smith got to see her former travel team members Katie Dyer, Sally Patrick, Katherine Card, Kristin Bass and Sarah Harris play as seniors and reach the state tournament.
It was kind of an opportunity to see her career up until that time come full circle. But this circle was about to turn into a flying disc heading skyward.
She had an opportunity to take over the team as head coach before the 2002-03 school year, and it looked like the 2003 Lady Red Raiders were in a rebuilding mode with a good future with one senior but a strong group of sophomores.
However, something magical started happening, and it quickly became obvious the players were buying into her coaching style.
“When we got to the post season, I said, ‘We’ve got a shot,’ ” she said.
And sure enough, they went on to win the state championship the first year the Spring Fling was in Memphis – although technically in Southhaven, Ms.
“I am not sure how many careers start out like that,” she said with a laugh. “I was 26 years old.”
Baylor would also win state titles under coach Smith in 2004, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022. The 2020 team was also good, she said, but the season was canceled due to the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
As coach Smith was recounting her career on June 9 from her cubicle with an inside window view of the courts in the Baylor Fieldhouse, she had the state championship trophy sitting on her desk waiting to be put up, as if it is like some old scorebooks waiting to be yearly filed away.
Coach Smith takes pride in that around 30 or so of her players to date have gone on to play softball at the Division I level. Among those in recent years have been Acelynn Sellers at UTC, Makayla Packer at Auburn, Sophie Piskos at Lousiana-Lafayette and Cheyene Lindsey at Florida, and others.
Coach Smith is also quick to praise her assistants, saying coach Tom Watson was a good mentor to her during the early years and helped until leaving this year, when he was replaced by Pete Hughes. Former star Baylor softball player Susan Harrelson Ross has also been a valuable assistant over the years, she said.
She also keeps busy teaching sixth grade physical education classes at the school and serving as assistant athletic director. And last, but not least, she is also now a parent of two Baylor boys, Luke and Logan. In fact, the only time she got teary eyed during the interview was when she reflected on getting to see her sons at school when they have gone through various moments of maturing.
Regarding her players, the real joys of coaching have come from all the special moments during and after they have played, she explained.
“There are a lot of softball coaches that know more about hitting and defense but getting kids to know you care about them and have their back is important,” she said.
“What draws me back and what I enjoy the most is just being with the girls. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes dealing with young ladies and helping kids find their voice and who they are.”
And often, the most rewarding times of working with the Baylor players might come after they graduate, she added.
“It’s 10, 15 or 20 years down the road when you see their successful careers and lives as mothers and wives. When you are one of the first phone calls they make when they are getting married or having their first child or need a little help, it is special.”
From the players’ perspective, a couple of former players who happened to be at Baylor helping with a youth sports camp the day I was there talked about her efforts to make playing enjoyable, despite how competitive it is trying to play for a perennial state power.
“She makes it fun, and we know we’re there to get the job done and we know what we are there for, but she is also very nurturing,” said Macy Ann McKnight from the class of 2020, who last year pitched for West Georgia. “She makes it like a family. You are not just there to play softball.”
Added Bailee Stack, who was a senior outfielder on this year’s state championship team, “I liked how much fun she makes it and how easy it is to be ourselves and play the game we want to play out there.”
From coach Smith’s perspective, being at Baylor and coaching softball can simply be summed up with a few simple words of thankfulness.
“This has been home for me since the fall of 1991, and I think how blessed I am to be at Baylor. I am lucky I had the opportunity to go here and can give back to the school that changed my life,” she said.
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Coach Smith, center, with two Baylor players, Macy Ann McKnight (left) and Bailee Stack.
photo by John Shearer