BATTLE CREEK — Win or lose, there were going to be plenty of tears shed by the Unionville-Sebewaing Area softball players.
Despite a valiant comeback attempt, the Patriots lost to Petersburg-Summerfield 6-5 in eight innings in the Division 4 state title game on Saturday.
It not only ended their season, but more than likely brought to a close a brilliant six-year run by coach Lary Houthoofd.
Last month, Houthoofd was informed that he would not be brought back for the 2012 season.
The coach walked down his line of players, giving each one of them a hug. Nearly every one of them burst into tears, knowing this would probably be the last game they ever played for him at USA.
Houthoofd remained quiet publicly in order not to be a distraction for his players. Following the loss, he finally commented.
“I was called into the office by the principal (George Rierson) and the athletic director (Mark Gainforth) and was told that I would not be coming back next year, it was their decision,” he said. “They also repeatedly two weeks ago kept asking me in that meeting they would understand if I quit right now. I said, ‘this my team, these are my girls.’
“I went out and addressed the girls and told them I wouldn’t walk away from them. They’re quality kids and I believe in them.”
During a recent USA board of education meeting, around 60 to 70 people came to show their support for the embattled coach.
“(People’s) support is fundamentally based on a respect for a coach who has built this program into a perennial super power in girls high school softball,” said community member John Neuman. “His overall record includes 227 wins against only 26 losses. His teams have won three state championships, six regional titles, six district titles and has won or tied for the league title every year. ... But the support for Coach Lary is because of much more than this winning record. Anyone that really knows Lary knows that deep down, he would do anything to help make his players grow and develop into better players. His commitment to the program in the amount of time, energy, passion and effort is unquestionable. ... His players play hard for him, respect him and know if they follow his instruction he will lead the team to success.
“What more can you really ask of a coach?”
To the players’ credit, they used the situation as fuel, but they also spoke out during the meeting.
Junior first baseman Jessica Gremel was reduced to tears while pleading to the board.
“I have more respect for him than any other coach. ... I don’t want to be with any other coach in my senior year (next year),” she said. “I don’t know what’s all happening (here).”
Houthoofd was asked the reasons he was not being retained.
“I’ve done nothing illegal at all,” he said. “The only thing they say is something about disconnect. We want some answers on disconnect.”
I have remained quiet on this situation, as well, for the same reasons as Houthoofd. I did not want every story to be about him during this great run. But now that the season is over, I think this is an awful shame.
Plain and simple, Houthoofd has helped transform USA softball into one of the best programs in the state.
The numbers speak for themselves — six straight trips to Battle Creek, three championships, and now a runner-up finish.
His record now stands at 229-27 (.894).
It would be one thing if the players and parents were the ones calling for his job. But by all accounts, that’s not the case.
“These kids and parents like me, they want me as a coach, no question,” Houthoofd said. “I love coaching USA softball, I believe in the kids and the parents. My coaching style is a little different. We do a lot of things as a team, and our team is just not the kids and the athletes, it’s the parents. We do an awful lot together and we believe in each other.”
Obviously players win games, but the coach makes a world of difference too.
Don’t believe me?
Ask Bay City All Saints and Frankenmuth. Veteran coach Brad Walraven left BCAS two years ago for Frankenmuth.
The Cougars have struggled while the Eagles are the Division 3 runner-up this year.
Will the same kind of decline happen at USA?
I’m not sure, but Houthoofd’s importance to the Patriots’ success can’t be understated.
“I don’t think that fight is over,” he said. “They want answers and I want answers. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to come out that people aren’t going to like.
“I just know there’s a lot of people that are very upset. They say they want to go in a different direction.”
At the school board meeting, there was at least a glimmer of hope given that the decision may not be final.
Houthoofd said he and his lawyer have a meeting scheduled Wednesday morning with members of the USA administration. He didn’t know what would come of the meeting.
“I always believe in my kids, my program and the hard work,” he said. “It’s sad where there’s a couple of people that do this to a human being. It’s not right and it’s not fair. People need to answer for it.
“We need to take our school back, our community needs to take our school back and make it where they’re accountable.
“I am upset, but I’ll tell you what... I sure loved the opportunity to coach USA softball, and I love the kids.”
I am hopeful that cooler heads will prevail in this situation. In matters like this, the old saying is “it’s all about the kids.”
Well, if that’s the case, then let the kids have the coach they want, the coach they deserve.
Traci L. Weisenbach contributed to this article. Paul P. Adams is a sports writer for the Huron Daily Tribune and can be reached at (989) 269-6464 ext. 112 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook.