After being a fixture in the first base coach’s box for over a decade, Amory’s Chris Pace is moving across the diamond as he has been named the Panthers’ next head baseball coach.
“The timing of this is really good. I didn’t think about doing it last time, when Coach (Chad) Williams stepped away,” Pace said. “Coach (Cade) Hoggard has been really great for us and got an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. The timing is much better this time. I had a lot of time invested at slow-pitch before, and I definitely didn’t take this job for it to be about me. I didn’t want this program to go down or decrease in any way.”
Pace has been the Panthers’ assistant coach since 2007, also serving as head slow-pitch softball coach up until 2019, the final season for the sport. He guided the Lady Panthers to three straight state championship series from 2013 to 2015, and the Panthers have reached two state championship series during his tenure as assistant coach.
Amory finished out the 2021 season with a 24-12 record, reaching the North half finals against eventual champion Booneville for the first time since 2011.
“Even the last time, it wasn’t a rebuilding. We’re definitely not in that rebuilding phase,” Pace said. “I don’t feel like we will change a whole lot. We may do some different stuff, just coaching mentality and how we do.”
With losing the 2020 season, this past season, Pace said he saw his team grow quickly throughout a tough division and the deep playoff run.
“This past year really helped us. Before this, with losing the 2020 season, we had one player who had been in a division game,” he said. “Tournament ball is really great with the competitiveness, but I don’t know if the atmosphere had ever been like what it was when we played Nettleton those two games at the beginning of division. We got better throughout the year with that.”
Amory’s division changes up with losing Booneville and Kossuth, as all four teams from their region were in the last four standing last season. The Panthers keep rival Nettleton and add Hatley, Aberdeen and Noxubee County.
“You still have to find a way to keep that schedule as competitive as it has been,” Pace said. “We will run right back into those same teams, and we’ll have Nettleton in our division, who will still be pretty good. They have winning in their blood too and started playing some really good ball.”
The Panthers lose just one starter and will return the majority of their pitching staff, which proved to be a strength in the playoff run, and Pace has handled pitching coaching duties during his tenure as assistant coach.
“We got a lot of innings out of (Tyler) Sledge as a freshman just in the 10 games we got to play in 2020, and then he was really good for us this year,” Pace said. “Bryce (Glenn) showed some really good signs at the end of this season, and we got a lot of innings out of Bo (Rock). Corbin (Gillentine) has had a great summer and really came on at the end of the year as well. We have heard really good things about some of our pitchers coming up in the freshman group as well. You have to find your role, your identity and what you’re going to be good at and use that to make us better and to help Amory baseball.”
With a large senior class coming up, Pace said he also feels good about the leadership he has returning in that group and in the upcoming junior class.
“A lot of them changed from the middle of the season to the end, and a lot of kids grew up in a hurry,” he said. “There are some good kids in this senior group. (Bo) Rock is a vocal guy, and Reed (Stanford) is too. They both show up every day. Ethan (Kimbrough), I love that he’s doing football, basketball, is in the weight room, and he’s worked his tail off to become a factor for us. Clayton (Reese) took a year off, then was hurt, and then came out and became our leadoff hitter and will give us innings on the mound. Will (McComb) came into a spot at the end of the year and did well, and Walker (Maranto) was big for us behind the plate. The best thing we have going is that we have enough who can go out there and then people pushing them. We have competition inside competition at practice.”
Pace named the work ethic of his team as another strength.
“These kids want to come up here, and it’s like it used to be in 2009, 2010 and on. You can’t run them off. You’re playing nearly every day of the week, and they are here on Sunday afternoon waiting for you to open up and it’s optional,” he said. “That’s a good thing, and you have kids coming out here just trying to get better. The competition factor is going to be good. I’m excited, and I know they are too.”
Pace said his deep ties at Amory were another factor in becoming the next head baseball coach and the support the program has received.
“I definitely have no desire or ambition to go anywhere else,” he said. “My wife teaches here, and my kids go to school here. This is home, and that was my whole deal when talking to Coach Williams and Mr. (Ken) Byars. The support is always here. Nobody is going to agree with everything we do, and the kids may not agree but we’re going to try to make it where it’s realistic, and they are going to realize why they are and why they aren’t, that kind of deal. Everybody wants the same thing, for Amory baseball to be successful, and we want to make it fun as well.”