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Friday, June 24, 2011

End of an Era for Bad Axe baseball

BAD AXE — After 30 years, 500-plus wins, and even more great memories, a pair of Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame members have decided to take off their cleats and head for the clubhouse.
Bad Axe varsity baseball coach Wayne Turmell and assistant coach Hank Weitenberner recently announced they are retiring from the program.
“Thirty years is a long time,” Turmell said earlier this week. “At some point, you have to walk away and make the move.”
Starting in the spring of 1982, Turmell compiled a 508-331-16 record with the Hatchets. His teams captured numerous league and district championships, including a trip to the Division 3 state semifinals in 2000. A former president of the MHSBCA, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
Weitenberner has been with the Bad Axe program since 1983, starting out with the junior varsity team. He joined Turmell as a varsity assistant in 1986. He was inducted into the MHSBCA Hall of Fame in 2008.
“It’s been a great relationship, it went beyond baseball,” Weitenberner said. “I have had more laughs with Wayne than any other person in my life, for sure.”
Bad Axe athletic director Ron Johnston said both men will be missed.
“Wayne has been one of the top coaches in the state,” Johnston said. “He’s meant so much for a long time to the Bad Axe baseball program. He’s so well respected and so many coaches speak very highly of him. He’s going to be hard to replace.
“And Hank has basically volunteered his time for nearly 30 years being Wayne’s right-hand man. For someone to give up their time like that for those kids and the community...
“I myself appreciate what they have both done.”
Turmell actually went through three assistant coaches in his first four years before Weitenberner joined him on the bench.
“I guess I was hard to get along with at the start,” Turmell said. “But Hank’s stuck with me all those years. I really don’t think Hank said much the first five years, I really don’t. He was pretty quiet. But that certainly changed.”
Weitenberner’s main duties included the outfield, basic hitting fundamentals and coaching first base, among many other things.
“He gave me responsibilities that I appreciated,” he said. “And we never argued in front of the kids. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have disagreements, but we never did that in front of the players.
“And, really, as for the players, if they made an error, hey, that happens. When they didn’t play the game the right way, that’s when we had a problem.”
Turmell said he always appreciated his assistant’s candor.
“I always figured that two heads are better than one,” he said. “If you have someone you trust, you have to use them.”
Both men say that one of the things that helped them get along so well was their similar baseball philosophy.
“My philosophy has always been that you win with pitching and defense,” Turmell said. “You can always scratch out runs playing small ball. I think Hank has the same kind of thinking and has accepted it. And that made it easy.”
Bad Axe is known in the Thumb baseball community as a team which uses bunting and stealing to manufacture runs.
“You can teach almost anyone to bunt,” Turmell said.
As for stealing, Weitenberner has taken the brunt of that scoring weapon.
“If I thought a kid could steal second, I would take off my hat and rub my head,” Weitenberner said. “Now, I am almost out of hair... That means we did a lot of stealing.”
Both coaches agree that times have changed when it comes to youth baseball.
“When we started coaching, I think there were 10 Little League teams in town,” Turmell said. “There was no Xbox, no Play Station... Kids played baseball.
“Now, I think there are four Little League teams.. There are just fewer kids who play.” 
Despite the decline in baseball’s popularity, the Hatchets endured just a handful of losing seasons during Turmell’s tenure. His 1998 team won 29 games, and his semifinal team in 2000 was 26-10.
This season, the Hatchets were 15-13, but lost six games by one run and three by two runs.
“We could have had a pretty good record, but that’s baseball,” Weitenberner said. “Records don’t always tell the story.”
As for some of their most memorable games, both Turmell and Weitenberner still flinch when they think about Bad Axe’s 1986 regional showdown with Tawas. 
Bad Axe trailed 5-2, but wound up tying the game and sending it to extra innings. The Hatchets had an opportunity to score the go-ahead run, but had a pair of runners thrown out stealing second — by an umpire who would not move from behind first base and was making the calls from that position. The Hatchets eventually lost, 8-7.
Turmell said Weitenberner got so mad he tore off the bill of his cap.
Weitenberner remembers it differently.
“I didn’t tear it,” he explained. “I took it off and kicked it and the bill came off and the top part stayed. The umpire told me, ‘Put that on.’ So I took the little part of the cap and put it back on.”
After the game, media members agreed that the Hatchets were robbed on several calls, but Turmell never used that as an excuse.
“I told them, ‘We’re not going to talk about that.’ We lost, plain and simple,” he said.
“I didn’t sleep for about three years after that game. I think maybe the next time we got to the regionals was the next time I got a good night’s sleep.”
Both men say they give major credit to their wives, Denise Turmell and Barb Weitenberner, for putting up with all the years of late nights and missed meals. Both say they won’t miss the long bus rides, the early April games, and all the early-season preparation.
They both say, though, they will miss the games and the strategy, talking baseball and the camaraderie.
“It’s been fun,” Turmell said. “We can now sit in the car in the outfield and watch the game. And we can turn the heater on, if we need it..
“Guys like Clyde Dawe, Erv Ignash, Bill Walker — we got to continue on with what they started. Now, it’s time for someone else to take over and continue.
“Hopefully, people can reflect back and say, ‘You know, Weitenberner and Turmell did it the right way.’”

After working together since 1986, Bad Axe baseball coaches Wayne Turmell (left) and Hank Weitenberner have decided to retire from the program. Both are members of the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What is next for USA softball?

Paul Adams wrote this column for Tuesday's paper on the situation with the softball team at USA...

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 You can also follow him on Facebook.