Saturday, June 28, 2014

Savoring Softball Success

The conclusion of the 2014 softball season was a bit surreal from my perspective as an assistant coach - and maybe for the players as well. For the first time since 1993 (before any of the players were born), our team won the state championship.  I wish I could write a play-by-play recap of one of the two greatest games in school history. Alas, I was in Texas for a family event I committed to before the season started.

Could I write that we knew from the beginning the team would be hoisting the gold glove trophy in June? No.  The most encouraging part of our pre-season round robin scrimmages was being able to take the entire team to Olive Garden without incident. The coaching staff approached the scrimmages with the hope of answering questions about our defense, but instead we walked away with even more unanswered. Looking at the first four games of our schedule, our head coach said he'd be elated if we had a record of 2-2.

Yet the pieces came together, and quicker than most of us anticipated. Apparently the repetitions at the dreaded drills (one player really, really wanted to throw the pitching machine into the river) paid off for the lineup, as the girls pounded the ball consistently and outscored their first two opponents 35 to 2. Defensively, the team responded well to changes and accepted the roles given to them.

Ultimately, our two "secrets of success" were our seniors and our coach.  Our group of six seniors played with and for each other better than any group of seniors I have seen before. Their junior year molded them for their playoff run this year after an unexpected run to the state final last year. After winning the eastern regional championship this year, one player remarked, "I'm not satisfied."  It was clear they were ready to win the state title and weren't just grateful for the opportunity to play.

As for our head coach, he is simply one of the greatest Maine high school softball coaches of all time. I could list statistics to back that statement up (and okay, I'm biased), but there is more to Lee Johnson than winning games, championships, and implementing a program that's seen multiple players compete beyond high school. He is not satisfied with finding one approach that works and sticking with it. He attends clinics and watches hours of video to find different drills and strategies to help his team and the entire program. He's been called a class act, which is an understatement. When he reported conference all-star voting results to the squad, he didn't say "I was selected Coach of the Year."  Instead, he thanked the girls for helping "us" get "coaches of the year" because the team made us look good.

Most importantly, Lee is a coach who believes in his players and staff, treating them with respect and providing them with a sense of value and importance regardless of their roles.  His approach may not seem "intense" enough to some outsiders, but he tailors it to the players on his squad, pushing when he needs to push but also giving free rein when necessary.

Despite the elation at seeing the girls reach their goal, there is a sadness that lingers within me as the seniors graduate and move on. The state championship was not accomplished in merely one season with this team. Years of preparation and dedication contributed to the team dynamic that allowed them to be successful. Their hard work yielded results that in turn will sow another seed for area youth, as ten- and twelve-year-old girls begin their journey together.  The road may not be the same, but hopefully they will reach the same destination.