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Iowa High School Coach Meets the Challenge

It was the summer of 1978. Larry Niemeyer was concluding his 18th season as head softball coach at Adel-DeSoto High School in Adel, Iowa. And he was tired.

Not from the demands of a many-faceted position where he not only taught in the classroom but coached summer softball, girls track and cross country and girls basketball in addition to fall softball ("I also coached all the junior high sports and had the school newspaper" he recalls).

No, he was tired of the uphill battle faced by all small Iowa high schools in state-wide competition in what was at that time a one-classification system. Niemeyer was able to win one state softball title during his years at Adel-DeSoto, but most of the time postseason competition was short-lived for a small school.

"It was hard to compete in a one-class system," he says. "Our enrollment was usually around 250, 260, and we were competing against schools like Urbandale with 1,200, so when you were a small school and made the state tournament, you'd really done something."

However, it was an entirely different story at the conference level.

"At Adel, we were winning conference in just about everything, every year." Niemeyer remembers."There were coaches up there who had never beaten us in all the years I had been there. I needed a new challenge."

So the man who inaugurated the fall and summer softball programs at Adel and had built them into a perennial conference powerhouse, began looking for that challenge. It didnít take him long to find it.

Prior to Niemeyer's arrival in the fall of 1978, Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School had experienced exactly one winning softball season and had been 1-19 in girls basketball the previous year.

"I was trying to find the poorest program I could find," he remembers. "And I found it."

Under Niemeyer's tutelage, Jefferson's softball and girls basketball programs quickly made a rags-to-riches turnabout to the point where both programs annually contend for state championship honors in Iowa Class 3A, the classification housing the stateís 64 largest high schools (the one-class system is no longer in effect).

Since his arrival, Jefferson has won three state softball championships (1993, 1997 and 1998). He was National High School Softball Coach of the Year in 1989 and currently tops the NFCA Easton Victory Club list with 1,519 softball wins (more than any coach on the list in any classification, college or high school) and only 314 losses in 38 seasons split between Adel-DeSoto and Jefferson.

Eighteen of his softball teams have qualified for Iowa state 3A tournament competition and his 1997 and 1998 teams each won 55 of their 57 games on route to state championships. Four players from the 1998 team, including catcher Liz Erbe of the University of Arizona, earned spots on the 3A All-State First team, a remarkable accomplishment. He estimates more than two dozen of his softball players have gone on to play NCAA Division I softball, including University of Iowa All-American Christy Hebert and Iowa outfielder Erin Doud.

Niemeyer doesn't exactly take the winter off as a girls basketball coach. Under his guidance, four Jefferson basketball players, including ex-Nebraska standout Kate Galligan and former Iowa star Lisa Becker, have earned "Miss Iowa Basketball" honors. He was named National High School Girls Basketball Coach of the year in 1989 and he led Jefferson to the Iowa 3A championship four years later.

When asked to pinpoint the biggest change in softball since he began coaching the sport in 1959, Niemeyer doesnít hesitate.

"The pitching is so much better now," he says. "When I started, if you had a kid who could throw hard, she was your pitcher. Back then a good pitcher had a fastball, a changeup, and maybe a riseball. But now, so many of the girls have pitching coaches. They're taught to locate their pitches better and to throw more different kinds of pitches."

Niemeyer has been coaching 38 years, has had only two jobs and still enjoys the game of softball.