MOULTRIE – Colquitt County’s Tony Kirkland announced his retirement Friday after just the second losing record in his 16 years as a head baseball coach.
The Packers’ 10-19 record is deceiving, however.
Rebuilding with young players after Colquitt County won 23 games in 2018, the 2019 Packers posted seven of their 10 victories in region play and surprised many by qualifying to host to a first-round state playoff series.
What Kirkland and his Packers accomplished was not lost on his fellow coaches, who unanimously named him the region’s coach of the year.
Oh, and Kirkland notched career wins No. 300 and 301 this year.
It’s time for the program to refresh, he said Friday as he cleaned out his office behind the home team dugout at Jerry Croft Stadium and Ike Aultman Field.
“It needs new energy, new excitement,” said Kirkland, who is 50 and has coached baseball in both Colquitt and Effingham counties for 28 years.
He will remain in Colquitt County as the middle school athletic director.
Danny Redshaw, who has coached the Lowndes baseball team for 18 years, said he is disappointed to see Kirkland leave the dugout.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve competed against,” Redshaw said. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. He’s a class act on the field and off.
“He’s been a great ambassador not only for Colquitt County, but for our region and Georgia baseball in general.”
Redshaw, who had been retired for several years before taking the reins of the Lowndes program for the final 13 games this season, said the 2019 season might represent Kirkland’s best coaching job.
“Before our first region games this year, I said there is no way that team is going to make the playoffs,” Redshaw said. “And then they become the region runner-up and they were the only region team to win a first-round game.”
So as he turns the reins of the program over to an as-yet-to-be-named new coach, Kirkland has the Packers in position to continue to be successful – he was 163-136 with four region titles since taking over the program in 2010 – in the near future.
This year’s team included freshman Pershaun Fann, a first-team All-Region pitcher-outfielder; junior J.T. Whatley, first-team designated hitter; sophomore Jeb Johnson, a second-team All-Region pitcher; junior Henry Daniels, a first-team first baseman; freshman Cannon Whatley, a second-team shortstop; junior Lucas Tostenson, an honorable mention outfielder; and junior Callon Kubiak, honorable mention catcher.
“And our younger classes here have some high-level talent,” Kirkland said.
Colquitt County athletic director and former Kirkland assistant coach Greg Tillery added, “Whoever steps in will be blessed. We’ve got some players coming.”
Still, Kirkland believed it was time to go.
And, the 2018 Georgia Dugout Club Hall of Fame inductee has no regrets after averaging nearly 19 wins a year after six years at South Effingham and 10 years at Colquitt County.
“People want to look at wins and losses and I’ve done that, too, sometimes,” Kirkland said. “And I absolutely hate losing.
“But I don’t think there’s any question about what I’ve done. I know I’ve been here for the kids. And I’m proud when I see former players and they still call me ‘coach.’”
To emphasize his point, he opens his phone and displays a picture he recently received from former South Effingham and University of Georgia player Colby May, now an assistant at Tallahassee Community College, showing May’s new baby boy.
Kirkland has a list of former players who went on to play at the next level. One that he is particularly fond of is Josh Reddick, now is his 11th major league season. Reddick, as of May 4, was hitting .344 for the Houston Astros and owns a World Series ring.
“He is beyond special to me,” Kirkland said of Reddick. The two talk as often as twice a week during the baseball season.
One of his favorite former Packers is Jay Saunders, now performing at Georgia College. Their relationship is a mutual-admiration society.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Coach Kirkland,” said Saunders, a three-year starting catcher for the Packers and former Team Georgia member. “He knew how to get the best out of a player.
“We got to be real close. I remember those Sundays out there hitting with him. He is a great hitting coach. He is so good about picking up things in everybody’s swing. I still call him when I’m struggling.”
For all of his success as a baseball coach, including being an assistant on Colquitt County state championship teams in 1997 and 2003, Kirkland’s first Packer job was on the staff of the 1992 football team. He still reveres Packers head coach Jim Hughes for giving him an opportunity.
“He has meant so much to what I’ve been able to be as a coach,” Kirkland said.
He coached defensive line from 1992-2002 and still can read off the names of his first group of Packers: James Stancil III, James Weeks, Jay Wyche, Kevin Walker and Allen Dalton.
“That was a wonderful group,” Kirkland said. “And I was learning on the run. Of course, you could learn a lot just watching James Stancil play.”
Also in his first year in Moultrie, he was the assistant to head girls basketball coach Donald Dale.
He also was a volunteer assistant on the Packers baseball team. The next year, he was made a full-time assistant coach on the baseball team, a position he held until leaving Moultrie to take the head coaching job at South Effingham in 2004.
During his tenure as an assistant with the Colquitt County football team, the Packers won a state championship in 1994 and reached the semifinals in 1997 and 1998.
The baseball team won two state championships and from 1996-1998 went 77-23. Kirkland was named the Georgia Dugout Club’s assistant coach of the year in 1997 and 2003.
“Those were the favorite times of my life,” he said of his first tenure in Colquitt County. “It was just awesome to be a part of those (football and baseball) teams.”
In the spring of 2003, as the Packers were closing in on their second state championship, Kirkland decided he wanted to be a head coach. He credits Jerry Croft for enabling him to develop his talents.
“He is very special to me,” Kirkland said. “He gave me so much freedom to do what I do. He allowed me to be the coach I’ve become.”
Croft says Kirkland and pitching coach Keith Croft “were integral parts of our success in those years. Tony did a job great coaching the hitters.”
Kirkland was offered two jobs. South Effingham also wanted him to be an assistant football coach. That sealed the deal.
“That was well-deserved,” Jerry Croft said of Kirkland’s landing the job at South Effingham. “He worked hard to be a head coach.”
It wasn’t long before Kirkland found out he had inherited some outstanding players in Guyton.
The program had never won a region title before he arrived, but the Mustangs won the championship in each of Kirkland’s six years. All six won at least 21 games and his 2004 and 2005 team combined to go 51-15.
In his six years at South Effingham, the Mustangs went 138-52 overall and 56-10 in region games.
In 2010, then- Colquitt County athletic director Darius Dawson asked if Kirkland was interested in returning to Moultrie. He was and met Principal Bob Jones in Rincon to discuss moving back to south Georgia.
“It just felt right,” Kirkland said of his return, which puts him closer to his parents, who live in Alabama.
Colquitt County had gone 31-48 the three previous years, but after going 13-12 in his first season, Kirkland led the Packers to 22-14, 19-10 and 20-11 records the next three years.
The Packers won region championships in 2011 and 2012 and again in 2017 and 2018. In 2011, Colquitt County reached the Final Four before being eliminated by Parkview.
One of the stipulations for Kirkland returning to Moultrie was the program get an indoor practice facility. The 8,500 square-foot building was completed in 2010.
Kirkland has been involved with Team Georgia since 2009, helping coach the state’s teams in Oklahoma for six years.
He also has won eight Coach of the Year awards, coached in Georgia Dugout Club All-Star games and in 2013 he won the GDC’s Ethics and Professional Coaching Award.
Kirkland also is rightly proud of the Packer Park baseball field being named the Georgia Dugout Club’s Field of the Year on two occasions.
One of his biggest honors came last year when he was inducted into the Georgia Dugout Club’s Hall of Fame.
Tillery, one of Kirkland’s closest friends, says the Hall of Fame honor is even more remarkable considering Kirkland was still an active coach at the time.
And as for winning 301 games, Tillery mused, “What’s he coached, 16 years? Do the math. That’s pretty good. And I’m glad I got to be a part of it.
“It’s going to be a long time before there’s another TK.”