New Gatlinburg-Pittman softball coach Haley Johnson tries to rejuvenate program

Mar. 09, 2014 @ 05:30 PM

Haley Johnson is spending her spring on a ball field again and the new Gatlinburg-Pittman softball coach said she’s glad to be back.

“It’s just really great to be back around the game,” Johnson said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was out of it, how much I would miss it. It’s been great.”

The former Pigeon Forge and Maryville College standout, who has also served as an assistant coach at Jefferson County in the past, is tasked with building some excitement with the Highlanders. She’s already convinced one new player, basketball standout Dannie Luczak, to join the team. Luczak doubled in the first at-bat of her career during a scrimmage at Sevier County on Friday.

Some of the more veteran members of the softball team are excited to have Johnson leading the program.

“She’s tremendous,” said senior Bethanie Trees. “She’s the best coach I’ve ever had. ... She makes sure that we work hard every day and we don’t waste any cuts.”

Johnson has emphasized that turning the Highlander program around won’t happen overnight. The players themselves have to put in the time and buy into what their new coach is selling.

There are early signs that’s exactly what’s happening.

“I got a call last night at 9:30. ‘Coach, will you come open up the facility at 6:30 in the morning so we can hit before the scrimmage tomorrow,’ ” Johnson said. “So they’re putting in the work. It might not pay off next week. It might not pay off this year. But I told them eventually it will pay off. We’re just trying to instill that sense of hard work and putting in what you want to get out of it.”

Trees said she’s already seen how far her and her teammates have come since conditioning drills in August. Sophomore Kelsey Henry said Johnson makes the Highlanders work harder than they ever have before. Henry pitched on Friday against the Bearettes in what was G-P’s first scrimmage of the year as it waits for work to be completed on its home field.

“It felt so good,” Henry said. “I haven’t pitched in the longest time. It was just really good getting out here. I think everybody else did really good, too.”

That infectious optimism may be the excitement a new coach brings. The Highlanders sang and cheered loudly during Friday’s scrimmage, showing no shortage of energy. When the season starts on Monday, Johnson will see if her team can convert that into wins.

“I think if we compete every single pitch, we’ll do a lot of things that we want to do,” Johnson said. “Of course we want to win more games than we did last year, but that’s not something we really talk about. We talk about getting better every day and competing every chance we get.”