By Chris Ochoa
Sugar Babies, Lemonheads and Mountain Dew …
Sounds like a trip to the snack bar. But then you hear names like Rainbow Unicorns, Golden Girl Princesses and the Monos Locos — and you know we’re talking softball.
When I agreed to help coach my oldest daughter’s first tee-ball team seven years ago, there were no Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs to speak of.
For someone who played competitive youth sports throughout my childhood, getting used to 5- and 6-year-old girls’ T-ball was an eye-opening event.
I relied heavily on my wife’s counseling at first. I needed her insight as a former kindergarten teacher. The ladybug that just landed on my cleat and the post-game snack were more important than the fact that the opposing team just loaded the bases with no outs.
After several seasons assisting, I got a head-coaching assignment — the Ladybugs.
What a great time. The girls simply enjoyed running around the bases for an hour at the park and wearing that uniform so proudly. And it wasn’t just the girls, but the families — all supportive and ready to help in any way imaginable, from rolling grounders at practice, to field prep and base coaching on game day.
I knew after my year as head coach of the Ladybugs, I wanted to continue coaching. Next was under-8, the “big leagues.” Challenges now were presented.
At one of the first practices of the season, a mom dropped her upset daughter off and simply said, “Good luck, coach,” before walking off.
The girl wouldn’t look at me. She just sat, sulking. How to handle this? Fortunately, my wife’s previous counsel came in handy. I simply told the girl that she would not be forced to have fun — she could sit in the dugout all practice, or join us on the field when she felt up for it. In less than five minutes she joined us on the field and played with the team the rest of practice as if nothing had ever happened. Whew.
A memorable coaching success came just a few weeks later when this same girl, who had once been so distraught, ran back to the field minutes after our team practice had just finished. Believing that she must have forgotten her glove or water bottle, I asked what was wrong. She simply came up to me and said, “Coach, I had a great time at practice today.” What a great feeling knowing you made a young person’s day by simply spending some time taking an interest in them.
The first disappointment occurred later that season when our team, the Blue Devils, put our undefeated record on the line in the end-of-year tournament.
Our Blue Devils were a juggernaut, having barely been tested all season. But then we were upset, 3-2, in the tournament semifinal — a poor time to play our worst game of the season. The girls were crushed and there wasn’t a dry eye among my players after the game.
What’s a coach to do? All I knew was there was no crying in baseball, but what about softball? Thankfully, a few positive words, and a reminder that the team’s end-of-year swim party was planned for the following weekend, seemed to alleviate the girls’ disappointment.
That season-ending disappointment only strengthened my resolve to improve my coaching skills.
The following year, my Sugar Babies steadily improved each week. We won more than we lost, but we were not the dominant team. I had to incorporate several girls new to the game of softball and relied heavily on my own daughter to help me “shape an identity” for the team. Despite our losses, you could sense this team had something special.
The players seemed to enjoy each other and had an outstanding attitude. This was about the time I had my second most memorable, and also proud, moment coaching softball. One of my team moms, of a self-proclaimed soccer-crazed family (whose daughter was playing her first year of softball for the Sugar Babies), sent me a wonderful email:
“I have to inform you that you may have caused my husband’s near heart attack last night, when at the dinner table, our daughter informed us that she now likes softball more than soccer!”
Those Sugar Babies caught fire, playing their best softball of the season at just the right time! Pitching, defense, hitting — it all came together as the Babies won the title.
This, my seventh year coaching softball, has been an equally rewarding experience. The under-10 division is even more competitive than I had imagined — aggressive base stealing, bunting, the dropped third strike rule — so many new aspects of the game to learn and teach.
I also received a wonderful surprise this season. After losing a player to an injury after the first practice of the season, I was in a pickle. I was now down to nine players, one fewer than needed to field a team. I asked my oldest daughter who had “retired” from softball two years ago, after being hit by a pitch twice in her first game at 10U, if she might be interested in trying again.
Thankfully, she showed some interest. I contacted the league and the board approved. For the first time ever, I would get to coach both my daughters on the same team — what a lucky dad! And did they ever make me proud.
I have so many fond memories and stories to tell from years of coaching youth softball and the Davis Youth Softball Association. Its board members and volunteers do a wonderful job of giving our community’s young girls an opportunity to play competitive softball in a fun and safe environment.
I tell my teams’ parents at the beginning of each season, I can promise that your daughters will improve their softball skills as individuals, and that the team will improve as a whole, but that it is my hope that the girls will enjoy softball so much that they will want to play again next year, and for years to come. Just last week, in the “high-five line” after our game, two sisters that played on my Ladybugs team years ago, gave me big hugs and said, “Coach, it’s so great to see you.”
What’s great for me is seeing so many girls I’ve coached continue to play year after year, to see their growth and improvement and to think that maybe I had a little something to do with their enjoyment of the game.