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Garner excited about change of scenery

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

Troup High has been more than just a place where Craig Garner has worked, it has in many ways been a second home.

Garner graduated from Troup High in 1989, and after receiving his bachelor’s degree from LaGrange College, he returned to his alma mater to begin a coaching career that is well into its third decade.

As much as Troup means to Garner, though, he’s eager for his next coaching challenge.

Garner, who has been Troup’s head baseball coach since 2002, is heading to Muscogee County to take over the baseball program at Northside-Columbus.

“For the first time in my career, I’m kind of stepping out on a limb, and really having to have true faith and trust in God,” Garner said. “It’s been a gut-wrenching decision that I’ve been talking about and praying about for the last three weeks.”

It became official last week, and Garner was introduced at the school on Wednesday morning.

“After getting down there and meeting the players and the coaches, and just going through that with their administration and the people I’m going to be working for, it kind of reconfirmed my decision that it’s the best and the right thing to do, and I’m happy, and I’m excited,” Garner said. “It’s going to be tough to leave a place that I never thought a million years that I would be leaving, but the administration down there, and their coaches, and their players, I really appreciate how much they made us feel like family.”

Garner has enjoyed an exceptional stint as Troup’s baseball coach, compiling a record of 346-201 in 19 seasons.

Troup has advanced deep into the state playoffs on numerous occasions, and it made back-to-back appearances in the state semifinals in 2012 and 2013.

In 2016, the Tigers won the program’s first region championship in more than 20 years.

Troup made it back-to-back region titles in 2017, and it shared the region’s top spot with Cartersville in 2018.

During the 2020 season that was shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic, Garner was able to coach three of his sons, Cade, Carson and Cole, on the varsity team.

While Cade has graduated and will be a member of the Southern Union baseball team next spring, Carson and Cole will be members of the Northside baseball team next spring.

“I’ve had 24 great years (at Troup), 24 years of great times and memories,” said Garner, who was also a successful wrestling coach at Troup. “It’ll always be a part of my life. I’m going to miss the players more than anything. Having to talk to them the other day was one of the single hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. Talking to former players, the last couple of days, it’s been tough, but also rewarding as well. That’s why we do what we do.”

One of the men Garner talked to was David Fuller, who played baseball and wrestled at Troup, and recently became a Navy SEAL.

Being able to coach student-athletes like Fuller has made coaching so rewarding for Garner.

“David was never a beast in the mat room (in wrestling), and he was never a starter on the baseball team, but he was the epitome of what you want in your athletes as a coach,” Garner said. “He was always respectful, always at practice, always working as hard as anybody, or harder. He was always just a great teammate. That’s what you want out of your players, win or lose. You want those kinds of kids. He called to tell me that a lot of the things you taught me as a wrestler and a baseball player helped me get through (Navy SEAL training). He’s had so much adversity in his life. It would break your heart to hear everything he’s had to go through and endure in his life. For that kid to come back and say he was thinking about things you used to tell us and preach to us, through practices and games. That means a lot.”

Now, Garner is looking forward to making an impact on students at a different school and at a baseball program that has been thriving.

Garner takes over a Northside program that won a state championship in 2018 under previous head coach Dee Miller.

Some of the coaches who have been with the Northside program will remain, including two LaGrange High graduates, Derek Branch and David Buchanan.

Branch and Buchanan were members of the LaGrange High program under head coach Donnie Branch, who has more than 500 wins and a state title.

“They take a lot of pride in this particular sport, and for them to ask me to step in and take over behind someone who has already done a great job in Dee Williams means a lot,” Garner said. “And you have other quality coaches down there like former LaGrange players Derek Branch and David Buchanan. Those guys are great guys, and Donnie did a great job with them, and they’re kind of passing on his legacy with the things that he taught them along the way. That was even more of a draw to go there and want to be a part of that.”

While Garner was deciding whether to accept the Northside offer or not, he had discussions with his family, including his two sons who were both key members of the Troup team this season.

Carson Garner was a freshman last season who was a catcher, and Cole Garner was a sophomore shortstop.

“My boys, and wife (Stephanie), they’ve been a driving force behind this and the whole process of wanting to go,” Garner said.

When talking to Carson and Cole, he made sure to let them know there would be no guarantees of anything at Northside.

“One of the proudest moments I had with my boys, I was telling them you’ve always got to think things through thoroughly, and you’ve got to weigh the pros, and the cons,” Garner said. “You take time to make important decisions. That’s a life skill. Take your time, talk about it, pray about it. I said Carson and Cole, y’all are both pitchers, but your primary positions are shortstop and catcher. I said, you have to understand that we’re going to a school that has a Division I-committed catcher, and has a shortstop that is going to Division I-committed by the end of this summer. Almost simultaneously, they both said, hey, we can play other positions, let’s go. They never hesitated, never thought anything about it other than we can play other positions if that doesn’t matter.”

While Cole and Carson will be members of the Northside team, his wife Stephanie and young son Cam will be fixtures at games next spring.

Craig Garner has no doubts that the Northside community will make all members of his family feel welcome.

“My family, it feels like we’ve already been there for a long time, and that was something that was special to us,” Garner said.