When I started with The Journal in 1998, I didn’t know much about Madison County. I heard the barbecue and baseball were good and the politics was crazy.
I soon learned all three were true.
But within a year or two, I started to recognize something else: this county has some good girl softball players. Madison County phased out slow-pitch softball in 1997 and Coach Doug Kesler, who is retiring from coaching MCHS this year, got the Red Raider fast-pitch program under way in 1998, the same year I started here.
So I’ve talked with him numerous times over the years about softball and other topics. It’s always been a pleasure and I’m always happy to run into him at the field or away from it. He has always struck me as a kind-hearted person with a good perspective on things, particularly the brevity of life and the importance of really recognizing what’s truly important and what you should really value.
For instance, wins and losses are naturally very important, particularly in the moment. You should fight with everything you have to win. That’s the aim of all genuine competitors. But if you step back and look with a broader lens, you can see that in high-pressure situations, like state tournaments, such matters are highly influenced by one bounce your way or against you. Kesler’s teams came heartbreakingly close to two state titles, with his girls finishing runner-up twice, in 2001 and 2012. I was there on both occasions. And both of those tournaments could have swung so easily the other way with just a teaspoon full of luck, which is pretty essential in all title seasons — just look at the Auburn Tigers. This year’s 36-4 team, which finished third in Class AAAA, was in the same boat, just missing out on the ultimate aim. Still, being in those battles for state crowns on a consistent basis is itself a major accomplishment.
And when I reflect on Kesler’s days as head of the Red Raider program, I won’t think back as much on the six region titles or any particular trophy. I’ll remember the way his teams hit the field like a well-tailored suit. Everything was polished. All the angles were even.The defense always popped. It’s a pleasant thing to watch something done well and with style. I like to read well-written stories. I like a song that’s well crafted. I like a meal that’s prepared with skill and care. Kesler’s teams had that element to them. Most of us didn’t see the practice that went into the smooth 6-4-3 double plays, but we could appreciate the fact that many hours were behind those quick two outs — or the clutch hits with two outs and the scoreboard lights holding deficits. The behind-the-scenes effort of such things establishes an understanding of quality for the participants. People who take part in such teams know later that being good at a job or a family requires daily effort and sacrifice. It’s cliché, but true.
Of course, so much of sports hinges on the “gene lottery.” What I mean is, some people are born with physical attributes that transcend others. There are a few among us who are just so much faster, stronger, bigger than the rest. This is a major factor in all athletics. But it’s a thrill to see that this isn’t the only rule of the game. Quite frequently, the bigger, faster teams fall. This is largely due to the presence of superior systems on the opposing sideline or dugout. A “natural talent” will quite often fall to “developed talent” and team cohesion. These factors depend on coaching. And when coaching is done right, teams have the intangible element of “grit,” which can’t be factored in to box scores. But if you watch a game, you know it when you see it.
Kesler’s teams had that grit, that tenacity to fight back when things went wrong. And I believe the system he set up and the attitude and work ethic that is engrained in the program will live on — hopefully with his assistant Ken Morgan taking the helm. He seems perfectly suited for the job.
The Kesler chapter came to a close Monday night with heartfelt and teary farewells at the team banquet in the high school cafeteria. At the end of the ceremony, his players presented him with a quilt with messages patched on from each member. I thought that was a beautiful gift, because it threads the past to the present and the future.
Kesler will be able to pull that blanket out when he gets cold, perhaps sitting alone in a recliner on a winter day, and warm himself literally and figuratively with the cloth and the good memories.
There’s been talk of naming the softball field after him. I expect there is some reluctance on the part of school officials to start naming any facilities after individuals. This can open the door for other, perhaps less worthy requests. This is a valid concern. I totally get that. But I’ve traveled to numerous football stadiums that carry the name of a man who meant something to a school. I think it’s something that should only be done sparingly, but there are times when it can be appropriate. I think this is one of those times. This is a man who established a real tradition at MCHS, a work ethic on a pristine Danielsville diamond that is known statewide.
But even if that field off Madison Street isn’t officially given the name, I’ll always think of it as “Kesler Field.” And I certainly won’t be alone.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Thanks Zach...well said. As a parent who had a child come through his program, what an honor. When I attend my daughters college games now, seldom is there a conversation when parents and coaches are unaware of the MCHS program and coach K. The work ethic and pride he instilled in my child was more than just about softball. It was a life lesson that in order to accomplish a goal, much has to be sacrificed. In fact, for us, college ball is a walk in the park to what coach K demanded and expected of his teams. It doesn't really matter what they call the field, anyone with knowledge knows who laid the foundation for years to come. Thanks Doug!!