As soon as the Woodland baseball program had a head-coaching vacancy, WHS athletics director John Howard wanted to name assistant coach Matt Montgomery the permanent replacement.

But since the abrupt opening came less than a month into the 2019 season, Howard felt the best course of action was to elevate Montgomery to head coach on an interim basis, following the removal of Colby Coursey.

Now that the season has come to a close, Woodland has made the move to officially secure Montgomery as its next head coach — on a full-time basis.

“Honestly, [Montgomery] was exactly who we wanted for the job, when we knew there needed to be a decision made,” Howard said Monday after informing The Daily Tribune News of the hire. “He had the tag of interim, because we thought that was the right thing to do during the season. He was always the one we wanted to take over the program, once he got control of it. … We’ve let him know all along that we wanted him to take over the baseball program.”

It certainly was in Howard’s best interest to be upfront with Montgomery about the administration’s intentions. Had the Wildcats looked elsewhere, Montgomery certainly would have been among the most highly sought-after coaches in the state.

“We couldn’t be more excited,” Howard said. “We feel like we’ve got one of the best coaches in Georgia. Talking to other coaches and other ADs around the county, they’ve all reached out to me and told me how awesome it was that we were able to keep him.

“Obviously, good baseball coaches are in high demand, and he had the opportunity, probably, to go to some different schools but chose to stay with us. We are very excited and looking forward to a great baseball season next year.”

Montgomery, likewise, is looking forward to taking over the program after getting a taste of leading Woodland during the final 20 games of this past season.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “I appreciate the faith coach Howard and Woodland put in me to lead the program. I think it’s primed to kind of break out. I think everything is there, all the pieces are in place — the support from the admin and the school. I think it’s a good time to be at Woodland High School.”

Having already been on staff for the Wildcats made Montgomery a logical candidate, but he also checked off several other boxes.

A 2001 graduate of Cartersville High, Montgomery boasts plenty of ties to Bartow County.

He also brings plenty of coaching experience to the table. Prior to Woodland, which he has coached at now for two full seasons, Montgomery served as an assistant at Morgan County, North Paulding and his alma mater. He left the Canes to take the head job at Pepperell following the 2016 season, leading the Dragons to a berth in the Class 2A state playoffs the next year.

The combination of his familiarity with the program, local connections and impressive resume made Woodland’s decision a fairly easy one.

“He has the experience to do all of the individual stuff, and he has the experience to do all of the offseason stuff,” Howard said. “He’s a great relationships guy. He’s able to connect with anybody, not just the kids. Whether it be other coaches, parents [and members of] the community, he’s showed that in the various meetings he’s had, so far. … That to me is one of the exciting things is the relationships he has with all of the stakeholders involved in the baseball program.”

Montgomery credits being able to work under the tutelage of prominent coaches like Brandon Patch and Stuart Chester with helping mold his coaching style.

“It’s really a unique opportunity, because you get to see how some of the best do it,” he said. “They’re great men, and the focus wasn’t always on wins and losses. It was about growing the boys into men and that they’ll be good husbands, dads and community members. I’ve been honored to have worked with men like that.”

That past experience shaped Montgomery’s coaching philosophy, which essentially boils down to this: “If you focus on making your kids the best possible men they can be, then the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”

Even though the high school season just ended for Woodland, Montgomery will need to hit the ground running as Wildcats head coach. He’ll spend the summer working with some of the youth in the community along with guiding those who are already a part of the program.

Before that, though, he’ll need to try to assemble a coaching staff that can help him return Woodland to being a playoff team after essentially being the first team left out each of the past three years.

“There are some really good men who are interested in helping with the program,” Montgomery said, noting that no official assistant coaching hires have taken place. “That’s the most important thing: You’re only as good as your staff is. … I feel like we have a really good chance to have a good one.”

Although Montgomery will certainly hope to avoid leaving in the middle of a campaign, the importance of a great coaching staff was evident in how the Wildcats kept their heads above water throughout this season.

For Woodland to replace its head coach entering play in one of the toughest regions, it put Montgomery in a really tough spot. The Wildcats struggled at times, as any team in that scenario would, but they produced some impressive wins, including knocking off region champion Kell.

“I just think in the situation the way it went down, losing our head coach in the middle of the season, that can go one of two ways,” Howard said. “The team can just give up and totally nosedive, but he held the program together. We competed in almost every game, and the kids felt like they had a chance in every single game that we played. …

“The potential for us doing really well is there with just the fact that he was able to hold everything together and finish out the season with such a big distraction happening during the middle of the season.”

To get to this point of returning to being a head coach, Montgomery has certainly taken the long way around. His circuitous path tested his resolve, particularly during the summer of 2017.

After Chester left Cartersville for Buford, Montgomery appeared set to be the replacement until an inability to get out of his contract with Pepperell forced the Canes to turn elsewhere. Eventually released from his obligations by Floyd County Schools, he wound up taking an assistant position with Woodland.

Less than two years later, the Wildcats will be hosting a meet and greet event with Montgomery, as their new head coach, at 6 p.m. next Tuesday in the WHS cafeteria. And while Montgomery preferred not to discuss the sometimes tortuous road to reaching this point, he no longer doubts that things have worked out for the best.

“I feel like this is where God is leading me,” Montgomery said. “… With all the twists and turns, it’s funny looking back, because at the time, you don’t understand what’s happening or why. Then you look back and feel like everything sort of happened for a reason, and it led me here.”