“Good teams find a way to put the success of the team at the forefront,” the new softball coach K.C. Mathews said.
Between the words that were coming out of his mouth was the hint of a smile from knowing this particular cliche is true. More specifically, it’s true for his team, the La Cañada girls’ softball team (8-4, 4-1 in league).
They’ve been rolling through the Rio Hondo league, too, making easy work of San Marino, South Pasadena and Monrovia. They’ve also been winning the close games, like the 1-0 contest over Temple City.
And everyone, according to Mathews, is the reason for the turnaround. The players are stepping up their game, the athletic director, Tamar Hill, and the assistant principal, Joanna Davidson, have been fully supportive of the team, the players and the new coach.
Fans are having flashes of the good ol’ Tom Parker and Todd Kissel days.
In case you’ve forgotten, those Spartans were Rio Hondo league champs almost every year between 1991 and 2003, including five in a row from ’99 to ’03.
They made it to the semi-finals of the CIF championships in ’91 and ’94 and they won the whole darn thing in ’95.
But since 2003, the team had been relegated to obscurity, not making the CIF playoffs four years in a row. In 2006 and 2007, they won four games (in 20-game seasons).
The 2008 team returned several starters, but no coach.
It was a delicate situation, to say the least.
While freshman Lizzie Miller is taking some batting practice on the La Cañada softball field and her teammates shag the fly balls, everyone is joking around, playing loose, relaxed. A few of them joke around, playing catch and gabbing.
Their practices look fun.
Miller has been a big surprise for this team, along with her fellow freshman teammate Anna Edwards.
Miller has been the starting pitcher that has delivered every time she’s on the mound. Even when she’s not on her game — Miller’s performance against San Marino on Tuesday featured her struggling early, ceding four runs in the first two innings, but overcoming the adversity, giving up only three singles for the rest of the game — she still keeps her team in it.
And Edwards? Well, she’s batting .314 on the year with two steals on the year.
But it’s more than just two freshmen, everyone is pitching in. The players have each other’s backs, some times sniping about the other team while in the dugout. When the pitching struggles, the batting steps up. Where there were once cliques, there is now a team working as one.
Others are actively participating and doing their part. Tamar Hill works as the team’s statistician.
The girls, though, were the big difference. Every one of them decided this was the year they would step up.
“We’re going into the weight room this year,” said junior Devon Zerebko. “It’s not just practice.”
“We’re putting a lot more effort in,” said junior Kylie Mulligan.
“We were sick of being embarrassed,” said junior Amanda Ulf.
Now teams are taking them seriously. Before Tuesday, the team had won six in a row, including four league games.
That’s the word several people used repeatedly to describe the situation the softball team faced just before Coach Mathews took over the job in November, though no one would go into details.
“We’re playing pretty well,” Coach Mathews said in response, “and I’d like to focus on that.”
No one would go into it, in fact. Though it wasn’t that important, almost everyone avoided questions about whatever unpleasantness had happened in the beginning of the season.
There were disagreements and arguments about who to hire and it gets a little hazy from there, though you could imagine why people might be suspect of Mathews.
“I was the loud football coach coming in to coach girls softball,” Mathews said. He was the assistant coach for football for a few years until 2006, when he wanted to pursue other interests.
On top of that, the team had two coaches in the last two years with no success and losing only fuels the flames of discontent.
He hesitated when asked if he wanted this job originally.
“This wasn’t in my plans,” Mathews says, “but yes, I wanted this job. I [was and] am excited about this.”
In his first week, he preached a return to fundamentals and having fun while taking it seriously. The girls, who decided to take the team more seriously, believed him. Hill decided to take an active approach and do what she could to help the team, being a kind of assistant coach and helping Mathews with the transition.
So far, so good.
Whatever transgressions were committed, they have been forgiven.
On Tuesday, the Spartans lost, Temple City beat them in the rematch, 9-2. It wasn’t close, but losing isn’t what’s important, it’s what you do after the loss that matters.
And you can bet Coach Mathews is smiling at that.