Sunday February 17th, 2019 5:21AM

Baseball: Coaching changes highlighted by big names, big programs

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
  Contact Editor

It was like a Domino Effect.

Almost from the moment longtime Gainesville baseball coach Jeremy Kemp had made the decision to leave the Red Elephants for the allure of starting the brand new program at Cherokee Bluff, the carousel of coaching changes around northeast Georgia began.

In all, eight new head coaches will be leading area baseball teams in 2019, more than one-third of all the area programs covered by AccessWDUN.

Kemp's departure prompted Gainesville to promote longtime assistant Adam Miller to take over the Red Elephants. Jonathan Gastley then stepped down at Jackson County to head to Dahlonega and take over Lumpkin County. Matt Bolt took over the Panthers.

Johnson will have a new coach in Michael Holland, who is taking over for Jared Hodge, who stepped down to take over the Lady Knights basketball team after five seasons. Region 8-2A has two new coaches as Kevin McConnell is now the head man at Rabun County and Zach Odom has taken over at Union County. Riverside Military also has a new head coach in Zeb Lackey.

Kemp said last spring the lure of starting a new program was enticing. It has also proved to be challenging.

"There's been some anxiety with things of course. When I got here we had no field, no uniforms, no equipment, so there was a lot to put together," Kemp said. "It definitely made me learn to appreciate things more. But we have a great booster club and support and everything is falling into place. I feel very blessed to be here.

"I am enjoying the aspect of starting a new program. You see things come together and that's very rewarding. Now, we're just ready to get out on the field and see how we do."

Gainesville's new head man, Adam Miller, is no stranger to the Red Elephants after serving the past 15 seasons as an assistant for both Kemp and former coach Wayne Vickery. Now, it is his turn to keep the tradition rolling.

"There's pressure, of course, being Gainesville," Miller said. "But we're welcoming that from the coaches down to the players. The biggest challenge so far has just been the administrative stuff that goes with being the head coach. Jeremy didn't tell me all the things he was doing. It gives you a newfound respect for what the head coaches do. I'm responsible for the program now so I'm just trying to learn all the things I need to do."

The 2019 Red Elephants also offer Miller a challenge that few people who have followed Gainesville over the decades have seen: a rebuilding project.

"It kind of is from that standpoint," Miller said. "We lost a lot of guys and that has been a challenge as far as finding the pieces to replace them. We're not a young team but we're young as far as experience on the field.

"We've been working hard to get these kids ready to compete at the varsity level. They are a great group of guys. While the off-the-field stuff can be tedious at times, the baseball part is fun. Being on the field every day makes it worth it. We're excited about the challenges and excited about our expectations for the season."

Up in the northeast corner of the state, Rabun County will now be directed by former Flowery Branch standout Kevin McConnell, who returns to Tiger after a stint as an assistant under Jim Cahill at North Forsyth. He is familiar with the Wildcats after a brief teaching stop in 2014 in Tiger.

"I saw firsthand back in 2014 what a special place it is up here so coming back here was something I always had in the back of my mind," McConnell said. "I knew Coach (Lee) Shaw from being at Flowery Branch so when the job came open I jumped at the chance. (Being a head coach) has always been one of my dreams since I stopped playing and to be able to do it here is amazing. But it became real when I got the call that they wanted me here.

Rabun County is coming off a second-round playoff appearance in Class 2A 2018 so McConnell will be inheriting some experienced talent as he navigates his first-ever head coaching position.

"We have some talent coming back but with any new change it takes a little time for everyone to get used to each other," McConnell said. "But I think we've already made some progress and our goal is to get back to the playoffs. We're looking forward to getting started."

Meanwhile, Gastley said his move was more of a personal one for his family.

"I was looking to get a little closer to my family and when (the Lumkin County) job opened I felt that offered us a chance to dot that," Gastley said. "They have a great administration here and they want the porgram to get better. We're going to be solid, I believe, with seven seniors coming back. I think we should be right in the mix of things (in Region 7-3A)."

The Indians are looking for their first playoff appearance since 2015.

Click here to watch a webcast with Bo Wilson and Jeff Hart as they preview the upcoming season.

Click here to for our complete season previews of our area teams.

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