We were in the field and there was a runner on second. I yelled a reminder from the dugout that we could only get an out at first base. The batter hit a soft grounder right to my shortstop, who fielded it cleanly and made a perfect toss to the third baseman.
The two girls looked quite pleased with themselves. It would have been a textbook play – that is, if anyone had been running to third base. Despite our extensive discussions in practice of what makes a force play, some of the girls still seemed completely confused. I felt that no matter how much I tried, I was doing something wrong as the coach. I felt like I was in over my head and worried that I wouldn’t be able to help the girls. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake taking on a team as head coach.
My dad had been my sister’s Ann Arbor Rec & Ed softball coach since first grade and all I had asked was if I could help out occasionally. He instead offered me the head coach position and a group of 16 nine-year-old girls. Having absolutely no coaching experience, I thought the job sounded like fun and relatively little work. I accepted eagerly.
When it came time to start preparing for my first practice, I began to realize that it might not be as easy as I had anticipated.
It was five minutes to 7 p.m. and I was standing at Winchell Park going over again and again in my head the drills and stations I had planned for the Sharks’ first practice. How am I supposed to keep 16 fourth-grade girls focused for an hour and a half? What if they don’t like me? What if they ask questions I can’t answer? I knew my concerns were typical for a first-time coach, but this made me no less uneasy. I worked hard to appear as collected as possible for that first hour and a half and, to my surprise, got through it without any major train wrecks.
The girls seemed enthusiastic for the most part and generally listened without my having to grovel. I had learned my first lesson: If I acted as though I knew I was in charge, the girls would listen, but I needed to add a little more conviction to my normally soft voice. I felt guilty at first using anything other than a soothing tone, but I quickly learned they could handle something a little harsher. This proved to be at least somewhat effective, especially with the small blonde girl who seemed determined to convince me she could throw just as well sitting down as she could standing.
At 8:30 the girls packed up and headed towards their waiting parents. “Thanks, Coach!” a few of them called out. I guess that’s when it hit me that it was my team. I felt an immediate attachment to each of the girls.
As our first game approached, I encountered the wonderful behind-the-scenes coach’s responsibilities. First, I had to e-mail all the parents and let them know when and where to be for each game. I seemed to be constantly using that e-mail list throughout the season.
Making the lineup turned out to be much more time-consuming than I had anticipated. I had to balance the innings the girls were in the infield, outfield, or on the bench; I couldn’t have a girl “cheer” two innings in a row; and I couldn’t have anyone sit twice before another player sat once.
I also had to accept that while putting the best players at the busier positions might win more games, it wasn’t exactly in the Rec & Ed spirit. When the jerseys arrived, I had to distribute them, doing the best I could to give each girl the size she ordered and a number she happy with. The girls weren’t too happy with the boring white jerseys we were assigned, so we decided to tie-dye them, making us the coolest looking team in the league.
When it was finally game time, the nerves that had subsided after that first practice returned. I saw flashes of my team being demolished every game, with angry girls and parents blaming me. It turned out I didn’t have to worry. The girls played far beyond my expectations, fielding balls I was sure would roll between their legs and catching throws I thought would fly beyond them.
I coached first base when my team was at bat, and gave each girl a high five when she got a hit. I loved their look of excitement when they realized they had done something well. We won that game 30-24. Yes, this is a softball score. Although I hadn’t done anything on the field, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, with a lot of relief as well.
My nerves were gone after that and I enjoyed practically every minute of coaching. After the team won the next two games, I was feeling good about our undefeated record. It didn’t last. With half the team missing, we lost the next game. I took it harder than the girls. We won the next two but then set into a rough patch, losing three games in a row.
I went into the last game as nervous as I had been for the first. We were playing the Cardinals, an intensely coached team that had lost only one game all season and had wiped us out the previous week. My girls were completely oblivious to the fact that, with five wins and four losses, our winning record was at stake. I tried to convince myself it really wasn’t all that important. But … I really wanted the win.
I tried to keep low expectations and just hoped that some of the lessons I had been drilling into the girls’ heads all season would stick. Maybe they would actually run through first base without staring at the balls they had just hit, or would catch the ball with their glove facing up instead of flopping it around upside down.
The game was close and nerve-wracking throughout. My girls were hitting well, executing plays we had gone over in practice, and, for the most part, throwing to bases where runners were actually headed. But the other team was doing the same. We went into the last inning tied. My girls scored four runs. However, at that age, four runs can disappear before you know it.
Their first batter hit a pop fly right to my second baseman. She held out her glove and the ball fell right in – and to my surprise, stayed there. One down, two to go. One batter got on base but we got two quick force outs to close them out. We had won. The girls started jumping and screaming with excitement. I had to force myself to act mature and not join in.
After the game I handed out participation trophies to each girl. Even though they still would have received them if we had lost each game, I loved how excited they got when they saw the box of shiny plastic statues.
After making the girls sit through an end-of-the-year speech, I decided to celebrate at Dairy Queen. Eating our ice cream, having staring contests, laughing together, and even having a cup of ice cold water poured over my head on DQ’s back benches is one of my favorite memories of the season.
It was the last time I would be surrounded by a sea of blue and red tie-dyed Sharks. I was sad that the season was at its end. I wanted a few more games to see how much more the girls could improve, and how much more I could show them. I made sure to give each girl a hug as she gave me her last high-pitched, “Thanks, Coach!”
About the writer: Rebecca Friedman, an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle, will be a senior this fall at Huron High School.