Rachel Smith continues giving back to the sport in which she excelled

Rachel Stone Smith was a standout softball player at Jacksonville State University in 1995 and 1996. Photo courtesy of Jacksonville State University Sports Information.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

NOTE: This is the fourth of five Q&A features on the Cherokee County Hall of Fame Class of 2024 inductees. The induction ceremony will take place this Saturday at Richard Lindsey Arena beginning at 6 p.m. The ceremony is open to the public and there is no charge for admission. Today’s Hall of Fame focus features Rachel Stone Smith.

An overall athletic standout at Cherokee County High School in the early 1990s, the former Rachel Stone was part of two 1992 state championship teams in basketball and track and field. She qualified for the state track meet in five events (shot put, discus, mile relay, 400m dash and 4x100m relay). She won gold medals in both the mile relay and 4×100.

But it was the sport of softball in which Smith went on to excel at the collegiate level. At Gadsden State, Smith was a two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-Region Softball First Team Outfield selection in 1993 and 1994.

Her softball success followed her to Jacksonville State, where she was a two-year starter for head coach Jana McGinnis in 1995 and 1996 – JSU’s first two seasons at the Division I level. As a senior in 1996, she earned First Team All-Trans American Athletic Conference and was GTE Second Team All-South Region as an outfielder.

A member of the All-Conference Team, Smith delivered a walk-off hit against host Campbell University in the TAAC championship game to give JSU the conference title. The win secured the Gamecocks’ first NCAA Softball Regional berth, where JSU traveled to Seattle to play top-ranked Washington.

Smith left JSU in the career top 10 in batting average, doubles, triples and stolen bases.

Following her master’s in education, Smith went on to become the varsity volleyball and junior high girls basketball head coach at Sand Rock in 1998. She was also assistant softball coach in 1999 before becoming that sport’s head coach from 2000-01.

Smith later went on to become the head softball coach at Piedmont High School in 2014 and is still coaching there today. The Lady Bulldogs posted a 39-win season in 2023 and their third consecutive state tournament appearance. Following that season, Smith was named the Class 3A Softball Coach of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association.

Piedmont just recently completed a 25-12 season with its fourth straight state tournament appearance.

Smith is married to fellow Class of 2024 inductee Steve Smith.

Q: Where did your drive to compete come from?

A: “I just think I came from a very competitive family. My father was an athlete. All of my cousins were athletes growing up. I can remember at a lot of our family gatherings, a lot of us cousins would get together and play some sort of ball in the yard. I found when I was by myself as a little kid outside playing, trying to throw a tennis ball off the house, or throw a tennis ball on the roof and see if I could run to the other side and catch it, I just think I was constantly trying to find ways to challenge myself. Really, it just came from playing out in the yard and competing with my little cousins. I think that’s probably where it originated from.
“I think my grandfather had a lot to do with that. He was a big Auburn fan. He was the type of person you didn’t talk to if Auburn lost that day. You just kind of steered clear of him. I knew from an early age getting a win was important. That’s probably where all of that originated.”

Q: Who were some of your role models growing up?

A: “You’re probably going to laugh when I say this, but Bo Jackson was one of my heroes. He could just do it all. I was lucky to grow up in an era where I could watch him. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, but I did read his book “Bo knows Bo.”
“There was another guy I followed in college football and into the pros, Brian Bosworth. He was another guy I watched who I thought was a fierce competitor. I actually read his book as well.
“Those were two of the guys I followed as athletes. I just respected them as competitors and thought they were relentless on the field.
“I definitely was a Braves fan. I watched them with Dale Murphy and Bob Horner and that group. Those were all guys I followed as well.”

Q: In 1992, you were part of a great Lady Warrior basketball team. You won a state championship that year. Would you talk a little about that team, some of the players and coaches?

A: “I came to Cherokee County when I was in the 10th grade. Around the same time, Leah Monteith had arrived here. Kim Rodgers Perry arrived the same year. That was just a group of intense competitors. Coach (Dale) Welsh was our coach. He was a very intense competitor.
“We made a pretty good run at state our junior year in 1991, and we ended up losing in the semifinals. We looked back and I think we missed 18 free throws in that game. That really just lit a fire under us as far as what we wanted to accomplish the next year. We just really pushed ourselves. We were going to get back to the state tournament and try to make a run at a title.
“Coach Welsh is a tough coach to play for, but he had our best interest at heart. He pushed us to our limits. I’m really thankful he did.
“That team, Veronica Cowser was on that team, Syconda Perry, Feleshia Cowser, Julie Graves, we all had a special bond. We were just relentless competitors. I think to this day we could probably get out there and press with the best of them. We were always putting pressure on the other team. It was either the 2-2-1 full-court press, a full-court man, or it was another press Coach Welsh just kind of made up, called an outlaw press. Basically it was a press with three people on the front who were really quick. We just free to do what we wanted to do as long as two of us trapped and one of us was the stealer. I think he realized we were really quick. To put those three people on the front of that press and really press the ball coming down the court, normally we’d steal the ball in transition. That was a lot of how we scored our points. We also had a great offense we could run off of that too if we needed to set up and run an offense.
“I learned a lot about basketball under Coach Welsh. I had a great time with my teammates.

Q: You also picked up a state championship trophy in track and field correct? There were five events you competed in, and I believe you won two gold medals and a bronze.

A: “A lot of girls who were on that track team were also girls who were athletes on the basketball team. Anybody who’s ever played for Coach Welsh, you were in shape. You were going to be in better shape than the other team. Even though we had a good track coach in Mrs. Moseley, we came to track already in shape. There was not a lot of transition for her to have to get us in shape to run track. We all participated in a good many events. I could just remember as good of shape as I was in from Coach Welsh’s basketball practice, the 400-meter dash was still a tough run. Basically it’s just a one-lap sprint. I always dreaded that, but it was one of my events nonetheless. I can just remember that track, with the events I participated in, it was always just a really busy day. I was jumping from track to field, from track to field because I had five events. You just had to stay on your toes and be ready when your name is called.
“Again, just a lot of us girls who were very committed to winning and just a great group of athletes to compete with.”

Q: You were also a standout softball player as well at a time where there was the transition from slow pitch to fast pitch. How hard was the adjustment there?

A: “At that time, in the early 1990s, the fast-pitch game was more on the West coast. The slow-pitch game was here in the Southeast. The Southeast has always been known for having great athletes, but that game was just not predominant here. I had heard about the fast-pitch game and knew it had kind of caught fire out West. It was kind of making its move to the Southeast. I was interested in it, but never thought I’d get the opportunity to play. I was approached by a junior college coach about playing slow-pitch softball, I think my 10th of 11th grade year. I ended up committing to play junior college softball. It was something that had barely taken root here.
“I believe at the time I transferred to Jacksonville State, there were maybe three teams in the state of Alabama that had fast-pitch softball. I believe Jacksonville State was one of those, UNA was one of those and Troy was one of those teams. I don’t think there were any more fast-pitch teams at four-year programs in the state. There were zero fast-pitch teams at the JUCO level. At the time, Alabama and Auburn didn’t have a fast-pitch program. They did have what was called a club at the time, but it was not a sanctioned sport at those schools.
“It was just taking root. It was something I was interested in and hopeful to get the chance to participate in, but locally Coach Jana McGinnis at Jacksonville State, she recruited me out of junior college and I got the opportunity to play.
“The transition was tough. To me, it is a totally different game. It’s a lot more fast-paced game. There’s a lot more strategy to it. It’s something that now, when people talk about softball, everybody just assumes it’s fast pitch.”

Q: As you mentioned, you committed to playing junior college softball at Gadsden State. You were an NJCAA All-American in left field. What are some of your memories from Gadsden State?

A: “It was just a lot of fun. The slow-pitch game was highly offensive. You better have a good defense on the field. I loved playing outfield. That was my favorite position. Hitting is a lot easier in the slow-pitch game. I can just remember that was fun. You had a lot of offense and made spectacular plays on defense. The game wasn’t really centered around the pitcher or the catcher. It was just an opportunity to showcase how far you could hit the ball and great defense. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to do that. It prepared me for what I was going to do at Jacksonville State. It was just a great time.”

Q: You mentioned Jacksonville State and Coach McGinnis. She was guiding the women’s softball team into Division I at the time in the Trans America Athletic Conference. What was that move like from a competition level perspective?

A: “They had a fast-pitch program in place for a while. I was kind of thrown into a completely different game. I remember Coach McGinnis sitting me down and telling me that she had no doubt athletically I would be able to adapt to the game. She just said ‘Rachel, the biggest challenge for you is the hitting.’ I took that to heart. I lived in the batting cage probably a good six months trying to get used to the fast-pitch ball.
“The transition there, the level of competition we saw was a lot better. We had the opportunity in making the transition, we were playing what was then Division II powerhouses. She did not make our schedule easy by any means. I can remember us going and playing the reigning Division II national champion Kennesaw State. We went over there and beat them pretty good. I think it was 11-2. I think she knew at that point and I think we all knew we had a good opportunity to make a splash when we made the jump to Division I the following year. We were a little bit hurt we wouldn’t be able to compete for a championship that year. I think that team just took it as a challenge to try and do the best we could the following year.”

Q: You delivered the walk-off hit in the conference championship game against Campbell. That propelled JSU to the TAAC title and the school’s first-ever berth in the NCAA Regionals. You traveled to Seattle to play No. 1 Washington. What was that like?

A: “It was a position I never thought I would be in, but I do remember I was ready for that moment when it came. I wanted to be the person in box with the bat in my hand with the game on the line. I do remember that. I was thankful I was that person. I remember knowing in my heart when I stepped in the box I was going to get the job done. I don’t want to sound cocky or arrogant, but I just think the amount of work I had put in to get to that point gave me the confidence to know we were going to get the job done that day.
“Just being able to go and play the No. 1 seed, I can remember we had a watch party. At that time, everyone had a satellite dish. You could tune your satellite dish. We had figured out where the announcements were going to be made and if we were going to be invited to the 64-team tournament. I think we were one of the first teams announced. I think they were doing (the bracket) from bottom to top. I remember when they announced Jacksonville State University, we all just erupted in celebration. Getting ready to play the No. 1 team in the nation, wow, that was a dream. It was lots of fun to be able to go there and experience that, but especially experience it with that team and those players and with Coach McGinnis. That made it really special.”

Q: Something unusual from your college softball experience – not quite a fond memory – but weren’t you hit by a car?

A: (Laughter) “Somehow that always comes up, but yes, I was hit by a car. It was actually before I put on a Jacksonville State jersey. We were getting ready to load the bus to go play Augusta College. I had an ongoing conversation with the Lord in my prayers about I just want to be able to wear that jersey. I’m going to honor Him and make sure I do this right. I had this ongoing prayer with God about Just playing, how much it meant to me to play. We were getting ready to load the bus and I had never played a drop for Jacksonville State yet. I didn’t even know if I was going to be in the starting lineup. It was our first game. It was a road game against Augusta. The buses I had been used to getting on had a bathroom. I was rushing, getting out of class, packing my bag. I went to the dorm, packed my bag and got on the bus. I thought I’d just go to the bathroom on the bus. Well, I got on the bus and there’s no bathroom on this bus. It was a charter bus but it didn’t have a bathroom on it. It was more important to me to not have to ask Coach McGinnis or the bus drive to stop, so I thought ‘I’m going to run back to the dorm and go to the restroom. When I did, there was a car parked in front of the dorm that had a bunch of people surrounding it. I couldn’t see what was behind it, but the car that actually hit me as I jetted across the road had swerved around that car and hit me. I can just remember going up into the air thinking ‘Oh God, this is it. This is how it’s going to end.’ I remember I put my hands down. When I didn’t feel anything, I opened my eyes and I was probably 10 feet off the ground. I ended up skidding a few feet. I had some road rash. I realized I was still alive. I was hoping I had no broken bones. After I got my wits about me, I went to the dorm, went to the bathroom and I had so much road rash I rode face down to Augusta College on the bus. I couldn’t sit. My backside was all messed up.
“Coach McGinnis asked me if I was okay, and I told her ‘Nothing is going to keep me from playing.’ I slept face down that night and got up the next day. I literally do know what it’s like to get hit by a car. It’s not great. I was very sore the next day, but I was not staying out of the lineup for any reason. It definitely was not comfortable, I’ll say that.”

Q: Could you talk about some of the players you played with at JSU?

A: “Ann Shelton, who at the team we were playing at Washington. I think we had played 40-something games and she already had 330 strikeouts under her belt for the season. She was a great player, and equally as dominant at the plate. You had Wendy McKibbin, who led our team in batting average as we went to Washington. She also led our team in home runs and was our catcher. Those two players were JUCO transfers like myself. We all came in together. I’m indebted to Ann and Wendy just for showing me the ropes of the fast-pitch game. They got to Jacksonville State and realized that I’d never played a drop of fast-pitch softball. I had a lot of questions I asked them. I can remember they never held back as far as trying to teach me stuff and show me the ropes. They were great players but even better people. They helped me along and helped me learn the game.
“There’s also Stephanie Vickers, who was our right fielder and Rhonda Freeman, who was also a freshman at the time. She had come to Jacksonville State straight out of high school, but she was a really speedy center fielder. Those players were like-minded. They were great competitors. It was a family atmosphere. We loved each other and played for each other rather than for ourselves.
“We all would’ve run through a wall for Jana McGinnis. I think her teams to this day would do the same thing. Jana treats her players like family. Me as a player, I was able to play a lot harder for a coach I loved and respected rather than one who I feared. She does a great job of building that family atmosphere and that respect with her players.”

Q: Not only were you a great student-athlete, but you had high marks academically. You earned academic all-conference accolades by excelling in the classroom. What was the balancing act there like between your studies and softball?

A: “I have to say I owe my grandfather, Dr. (David) Stone, for that. He always held academics in high regard. He was a big sports fan. He taught me a lot. He put himself through vet school at Auburn. He was this very successful veterinarian. My parents (Richard Stone and Connie Morrow) also pushed for high academics. They said sports is going to leave you one day and you’re going to have to be able to provide for your family. Academics is going to be a huge part of that. I just kind of held on to that. I always took my studies seriously and just tried to do the best I could.”

Q: You and your husband Steve Smith were part of organizing the SO-COOL program in Centre. How satisfying is it to know that program still exists today and helps so many kids?

A: “It’s very satisfying. I think going into education, Steve and I both looked at education as a mission field. We felt like we could make an impact on a lot of kids choosing the professions we did. With our sports background, sports is basically a microcosm of real life and it teaches you the lessons you’re going to need to have to navigate life when it gets difficult. We just felt like SO-COOL was in line with that same mission. We wanted to be a part of that. It was also a way for us to learn a little bit too about kids who need someone to guide them and need someone to have a relationship with them, to guide them or mentor them. I think it taught us a lot about those things.
“In coaching, even now, I want have relationships with my players. SO-COOL taught us a lot about that. A lot of times, kids need the sports more than sports need the kids. We learned a lot about that during our SO-COOL days.”

Q: You were also instrumental in organizing and coaching girls softball camps, paving the way for others to reach their dreams. Could you talk a little about that?

A: “I wanted the girls of Cherokee County and surrounding counties to really know what softball was about. I didn’t want them to learn the fast-pitch game the way I learned it, just kind of get thrown into it. The game of softball means so much to me. I wanted to try and give back to them and teach them as much as I knew about the game. I kind of felt like that’s something I needed to do to give back to my community and teach them as much as possible about the game. The game in turn will teach them the valuable lessons of life that they will need to navigate life later on. I wanted them to have that and be equipped to navigate life through those lessons of softball.”

Q: Just to flash forward to today, you had the honor of coaching your daughter Savannah. How special was that?

A: “It has been my great honor to coach her. She just turned 18 and I told someone I can’t think of a time where Savannah has ever disappointed me. She’s been a joy to coach and it’s been my privilege to be out there with her and watch her grow and watch her love for the game grow and watch her acquire the skills she’s acquired. I was by no means a pitcher. I learned a lot about pitching from her by watching her. She’s just like another coach out there. I’m not sure how I’m going to react not having her out there with me anymore. She’s been at practice with me from the time where she would get bored from watching practice and go take a nap in the office. Then she started taking an interest in softball and she’d want to practice with us from fourth, fifth, sixth grade. She’d want to be in the drills with us. We didn’t take it easy on her by any stretch. She held her own the entire time.
“Just to watch how she’s applied herself, even in her free time aside from practice, has been something to admire. It’s just been my privilege to be out there with her and watch her grow. It’s been one of the great joys of my life.”

Q: This Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame class you’re going in with includes your husband and some folks you have ties with. How special is that?

A: “That is special to be going in the same class as Steve. Sports has been an essential component of our lives. It always has been. I think it’s probably what brought us together. We met through a mutual friend, but we’ve often said if we hadn’t have met through a mutual friend we probably would’ve ran into each other at a ball field somewhere. For us to go into the same class, I admire Steve for his work ethic and all that he’s accomplished in sports and coaching. I’ve got a front-row seat to witness all that. It’s really the person he is and how he applies himself to his job and how he goes about his business. There’s not another Steve Smith. It’s my honor and my privilege to be inducted with him.”

Q: Anything you’d like to personally say to the Hall of Fame audience?

A: “I’m just honored to be in that select group. I want to extend my thanks to the committee for even considering me as a member. There are a lot of great people who are already in the Hall of Fame, great athletes. There are a lot of great ones who will come through in the future. I’m extremely honored to represent Cherokee County in the Hall of Fame. I just think it’s an honor and a privilege.”

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