Oklahoma Slow-Pitch Softball Coaches Association named Rock Creek’s Wade Johnson the 2014 small-school coach of the year.
Johnson said it feels “pretty good” to be selected for the statewide award.
He and his 12th-ranked Lady Mustangs took the 2014 Class 2A State slow-pitch title this spring with only two seniors on the team. Five of the 11 in Rock Creek’s starting batting order were freshmen and four were sophomores.
“They are young but talented,” the coach said.
Johnson has coached for 25 years, and five of the past six years have been at Rock Creek. He came to RC in 2007 from Sterling, where he had been for nine years and returned in 2012. (For anyone who wondered, Sterling is situated geographically between Lawton and Chickasha.)
He graduated from Tishomingo High in 1982 and Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 1990.
This reporter, being in and near the Rock Creek dugout on multiple occasions this season, heard Johnson raising his voice to the players more than a few times. Then, he also was observed praising them for good plays and laughing with them after games. The recent award was an opportunity to ask him about his coaching style.
“Pretty intense,” he said. “I expect a lot of the kids. Some people think I’m too harsh. I want my kids to be competitive, play hard and do the right thing.
“Once they get to know me, they realize I do what I do to make them play better. I get on them, but I’m also the first one to cheer when they do something right.
“I’m fortunate that they do respect me and they play hard for me. I couldn’t ask for a better bunch.
“I was told by an old coach when I first started to ‘be yourself, to coach like the person you are.’ I’m competitive and work hard. I think they know that about me. And when they see I care, I think it makes them care.”
Looking back on this landmark 2014 slow-pitch season, Johnson’s memorable moments aren’t exactly what some might think.
“The first game of the year, we had Tushka at home and got run-ruled (15-2). After that, we discussed some things. We were up and down, and went to the Colbert tournament and didn’t play well.”
Yep. His team alternated wins and losses every game through the initial seven. Then it was consecutive wins against Silo (March 31) and Caddo (April 1), directly followed by two straight defeats in that Colbert tourney April 4. RC lost to Calera in its first game by one run, which came in the seventh inning (4-3), and was eliminated on a 5-1 loss to Coalgate. When the starters weren’t getting the job done against Coalgate, Johnson made sure he put every single one of his players into the game. Coach said he thought that day became a turning point in the season.
“We got better and better after that,” he said. “Now, these are high-school kids and not pros. They are going to make mistakes. But one thing we got better at was not letting those mistakes hurt us. Over in Soper (for Regionals), we made like four errors in a game, but they didn’t score off of them. We always got the last out on the next play or the one after that. We grew up. They learned that one mistake won’t kill you. It’s three or four in a row that will get you beat.
“We got a little bit better all the time. They knew they could play, and if they got it together, they would be hard to beat.
“I’ve always preached that it’s how you end up, not how you start. My teams historically finish better than they started.”
As most people know, a slow-pitch softball game can flip on a team at any moment. And as Johnson has said to his players and repeated in this interview, a team can’t take a lead and let the other “hang around.”
On March 24, the Lady Mustangs hosted Boswell. They batted around and scored 11 points in the first inning. Then, Boswell scored two runs in a sloppy defensive outing between two RC offensive three-and-outs, Johnson asked his players if they could see how quickly things could change. They responded by holding the Lady Scorpions to only those two runs and scoring five more to end it by run rule in the fourth.
It appeared even more evident they understood six weeks later. In the State Tournament quarterfinals May 7 against No. 7 Maud, Rock Creek jumped out to a 2-0 lead and scored in five of six innings en route to a 16-2 victory.
In the semi-final game, the Lady Mustangs scored 25 points through six innings to top-ranked Stonewall’s 13. Sophomore Kaytlin Blackburn hit two grand slams in that one. And four home runs were knocked over the fence by her teammates — seniors Michelle Wheeler and Harlie Heflin, sophomore Macy Eiler and freshman Ashlynn Robinson. The Lady Longhorns looked deflated after having held an 8-2 lead going into the bottom of the second.
“Don’t ever feel like you’re beaten until it’s over,” Johnson said. “We’ve come back on people and they’ve come back on us.”
He mentioned the State finals game against No. 2 Binger-Oney. The Lady Bobcats claimed a 4-0 advantage in the first inning. Rock Creek scored one in the third and three in the fifth to tie it at 4. The Lady Mustangs added four more in the bottom of the sixth to go up 8-4. Binger-Oney wouldn’t just go away, scoring three while getting on base with a few raps that looked like pinball in the field. But the Lady Mustangs regained control in the light rain and put away the game.
For many men, it might sound like a nightmare to have their wives always there keeping score, so to speak, logging a record of every move. But Johnson’s wife, LeAnn, maintains the stat sheets for her husband’s high-school team, and it seems to be a nifty system.
In the dugout this season, coach could be heard asking something like, “LeAnn, where did she go?”
No, he wasn’t missing any of his players. He meant to determine where the current batter previously hit the ball so he could adjust fielders, maybe heighten their alertness, etc.
“My wife is my right hand. We’ve been married 28 years. She’s been keeping books at all my games. At practice, she does all different kinds of things.
“The girls think a lot of her. If she’s not there for some reason, they’re asking where she is. And when I get on them, she’s there and can kind of bring them back up. I don’t know what I would do without her.
Before he started coaching, Johnson said they talked about it. He didn’t want to do it on his own, so he said he’s fortunate she loves this sports stuff too.
“She’s been right by me the whole time and raised two kids. When we first started, she was keeping books with a baby on her hip.”
Believe it or not, Johnson said, although he was coaching school and summer teams, he didn’t make his son Wayde and daughter Devyn play sports when they were younger. Johnson said his son played one season of T-ball and hated it, and he didn’t play again until he was old enough for the midget league.
The coach had a philosophy behind letting his offspring decide for themselves when and if they wanted to participate in sports.
“It’s like life,” Johnson said. “I believe you go hard at anything you do. If you’re gonna do it halfway, don’t do it. If you don’t want to be there, you shouldn’t be.”
Johnson’s father was a blacksmith, and he was around that. Plus, he’s been a welder, worked on work crushers and “just about every other job you could think of.” But what he really enjoys is working with the students.
His own family did turn out to be a competitive one. He said his son and daughter had successful high-school sports careers, both receiving statewide awards and recognition. Devyn will enter her second season on a basketball scholarship at Murray State College this fall. She aspires to extend her athleticism into keeping up the kindergarten students someday.
Wayde works for Choctaw Casino Resort.
“He tried a year of college and didn’t like it,” Johnson said, adding that he was fine with that and no less pleased.
Staying with the latter sentiment, Johnson closed with saying, “I want to congratulate the kids on the good job they did this season. I’m really proud of them.”
Contact Regina Phillips at (580) 924-4388 or @NewspaperRegina on Twitter.