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NFCA Coaching Tip Of The Week: What Do You Do When It All Falls Apart?

Imagine this scenario: Practice starts in September and very quickly, you see that what you had thought would happen has happened. You are watching what should be the national championship team work out. You recruited the players, now they are yours.

You have two of the top five pitchers in the nation. Your No. 3 pitcher would be No. 1 on some of the teams you play. Your shortstop and first baseman, who both have the perfect softball bodies at 5-8 and 155 pounds, are going to hit 25 home runs each. Three of your players are going to combine for 125 stolen bases. Your weakest offensive player will be your second baseman, who hit .357 for you last year and hits doubles. There will not be a player in your lineup that will hit under .350. Every team offensive statistic will be broken.

Your outfield will run down most balls in the gaps. And because you have two big arms in the circle, one run will win most of your games. You even have a JC first team All-American on the bench as your backup catcher and designated player.

A season made in heaven. Even if a couple of players have off years, you are still better than your 1995 team that had six first team All-Americans and outscored opponents 467-63. Everything is rosy.

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

It happens, a disaster of unbelievable proportions. Your biggest arm has problems at home and doesn't finish the fall semester. Your second big arm unexpectedly becomes a mother. One of the 25-home run girls develops a severe medical problem that requires immediate and constant treatment, and cannot play in the spring. The other 25-home run player tells you the day before the spring semester starts that she is going to transfer to another university to be with her "friends." Your DH, the No. 2 hitter, transfers with her.

Wait, itÕs not over! Another player breaks her leg in the fourth game of the season. Another one tears the plantar fascia (bottom of the foot if you're looking for it). Both players are going to be out at least two months and maybe the entire season.

So, what's left?

1. A No. 3 pitcher who now has to be the ace.

2. A pitcher you find during the Christmas break who cannot break 55 and is as wild as Tarzan (her control, not her personal life).

3. A good second baseman who now has to play shortstop and does not have the body or physical skills to do so. She has to pitch some, too.

4. One of the base stealers is remaining.

5. Who plays first? She's on the bench. Good glove, but no bat.

6. Who plays second? Who knows, try to get one out of one of the P.E. classes. (I did.)

7. Let's see, the catcher and third baseman are still here. We are okay there.

8. The left fielder and right fielder are still here. We're all right there defensively, but the right fielder will have to hit now. Wecannot DP for her like we planned.

9. Who plays center field? ItÕs got to be someone new. I've got to find her fast.

What have you lost? YOU HAVE JUST LOST THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. THAT IS WHAT YOU HAVE LOST.

Let's itemize what you've lost:

1. Two pitchers who average 12 strikeouts a game and can hit.

2. 50-plus home runs.

3. At least 80 stolen bases.

4. Solid defense at short, second and centerfield.

5. Your No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 hitters.

6. Your top two substitutes.

7. Your backup catcher and DH.

What do you have now?

1. A team that will make at least 100 errors.

2. A pitching staff that will allow at least one hit per inning.

3. No home run power.

4. You still have a 40-stolen base player if the game score allows her to run.

5. A team that will struggle to play .500 ball.

6. A schedule that includes at least 20 games against top 20 teams.

7. Trouble having nine players if anyone else is injured.

So, what do you do? Pray for help or rain outs, sprinkle holy water on the field, or how about a good helping of rat poison?

The answer is "none of the above." You do what you have always done. YOU COACH.

The first priority is defense. Move your best remaining athlete to shortstop. Practice daily on handling the bunt. You must defense the bunt to have any chance of winning. Convince your team the "importance" of outs. You must get every out you can, as early in the inning as you can.

The second priority is base running. Your team must be the very best base runners if they are to have any chance of winning. You can never lose a base the other team wants to give you.

The third priority is pitching. You ask why is this not the first priority. Because even on a good day, this staff does not have the physical skills to win the game alone. All they can do is hopefully keep the game close until you can steal a couple of runs. First pitch strikes are a must. Your defense is going to make some errors, so your pitchers cannot walk people. Teams must hit their way to first base.

The fourth priority is pickoffs. Your opponents are going to have lots of runners on base. If you can pick one off, that's an out.

So, what actually happened? The aforementioned scenario is exactly what happened to the Athens State University softball team from September, 1998 through April, 1999. Athens State went from being a perennial national championship contender (two runner up and one fourth-place finish in the past five seasons) to being out of the top 20 rankings for the first time in six years.

The point is, like Yogi says, "It's not over until it's over." All of our plans may go out the window for happenings beyond our control. But as a coach, you must recognize the talent level of the players you can put on the field, and if it's like mine was this spring, live with it and make the best of it. A .200 hitter cannot become a .400 hitter simply because the .400 hitter is not there anymore. Your job as a coach is to make sure she is the best .200 hitter in the league.

A pitcher who throws 53 miles per hour cannot replace a pitcher who throws 63. You cannot teach her to strike out 15 per game, but you can teach her the importance of location and changing speeds. A fielder that does not have enough coordination to take organized exercises is not going to win a gold glove. Teach her to be in the correct place and to throw to the correct base.

The bottom line is you play with what you have and your efforts as a coach do not diminish because all of a sudden, the talent is gone. Your job as a coach is to help each player reach her potential. Even though you know that your team does not have a chance, you never let them know that you know. Coaches coach, they don't whine and talk about what could have been. It doesn't matter if their players are short of God-given skills or are Olympic caliber athletes. Coaches coach.

Good luck. I hope you are never hit with this Jurassic Park chaos, but if you are, remember, all you can do is what you do best. You coach. It doesn't hurt to learn the Apache Indian rain dance, though.