By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Garry Shirley has returned to the Land of the Conquerors.
The 1981 Etowah High School graduate was recently named head baseball coach at Coosa Christian, where he was from 2005 until 2012.
Shirley replaces Joey Millican, who resigned this past summer due to personal reasons.
During Shirley’s initial eight seasons at Coosa, the Con-querors made the Class 1A state playoffs six times and made the ASWA top 10 state rankings for the first time in school history.
Shirley was an assistant coach for at Gadsden City the past two years and coached the Westbrook Christian’s junior high team from 2013 to 2015. Prior to his arrival at Coosa Christian in 2005, Shirley coached the Etowah ju-nior high team for two years.
“I was really looking forward to hitting a little white golf ball a lot,” he said with a laugh. “But [Coosa Christian athletic director] Kenneth Jacobs called and wanted me to apply, and I guess I said all the right things.”
Shirley confirmed that he is holding practice three days a week but added that many of his players are still playing basketball.
“We’re hoping that the basketball makes a big run in the playoffs, but if they don’t, our first game is Feb 23 against Collinsville.”
Shirley already has set a high bar for the program in terms of goals and expectations.
“The first time I met with [the players], I said that our main focus will be winning a blue trophy (state championship). I told the kids that if they didn’t make that their top priority, they were defeating the purpose of coming out here and playing.”
Both Shirley and Millican, also a former Etowah High baseball standout, led Coosa to the second round of the postseason.
Over the past three seasons, Millican’s Conquerors went 66-20 and won area titles in 2016 and 2017.
Shirley has the distinction of being the first of Larry Fos-ter’s players to sign a college scholarship. Shirley, who played on Foster’s first team in 1981 as a senior, went to Snead State in Boaz as a pitcher and first baseman. Shirley said that he and Foster still keep in touch and play golf on occasion.
Shirley said his time playing under Foster and later coa-ching with him was invaluable in terms of learning how to build a winning program. As head coach at Etowah from 1981 to 2004, Foster guided the Blue Devils to a 520-209 record while winning state championships in 1985, 1987 and 1996. Etowah qualified for the state playoffs 18 times under Foster during that span. From 2013 to 2018, Foster led the Blue Devils to six state playoff berths, with the 2017 squad making the state quarterfinals.
“[Foster] had a vision of what it took to be successful, and there were no shortcuts,” said Shirley. “You did things the right way, all of the time, and you don’t skip anything. Coach Foster taught you as much about life as about baseball, because those are exactly the things you have to do in life to be successful.”
After Shirley was hired by Coosa Christian in 2005, Foster was the first person Shirley contacted for input and advice. Foster responded by meeting with Shirley 15 minutes after that phone call. During that meeting, Foster handed Shirley 50 pages of notes and diagrams.
“I thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’ said Shirley. “But he told me that that was what you needed for a large school to be successful. I kind of doctored some of his stuff for Coosa, and it did take a year or two, but we were succ-essful.”
Shirley informed his players that discipline would be an important part of his program.
“I told them that it’s not going to be easy. I’m old school and we’re going to do it my way, and that nobody is above the team.”
Jacobs considers the hiring of Shirley as a “grand slam” for the school’s baseball program.
“When our opening came up, Garry was the first person I looked to. I knew God was leading us in that direction. Joey Millican did a phenomenal job for Coosa Christian, and I think Garry will pick up right where Joey left off. I’ve always said that as good a coach as he is, Garry’s an even better man. He can coach baseball and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s what meant more to me than anything else. You couldn’t ask for a better fit.”
Shirley noted that one thing has not changed since his first experience at Coosa and later at Westbrook – the satis-faction of coaching in a Christian setting.
“In everything you do at both schools, you put God first. If you put God, first, then other things will fall in place. The comradery that you get from the kids lasts for a lifetime. I’ve got kids that I coached my first couple of years at Coo-sa that still call me.”
One thing that has changed in the six years since Shirley left the school is the program’s on-campus baseball field. Until four years ago, the Conquerors played their home games at the Gadsden Sports Complex.
“Every game was an away game for that first bunch, and they were pretty dang successful. I guess because they were always on the road that nothing bothered them. But it’s nice to have a place you can call home for games and practice.”