(Note: This article was published in The Monroe News)
BY DOUG DONNELLY
OTTAWA LAKE — On her final day as the Whiteford Bobcats softball head coach, Kris Hubbard found one more lesson for her players to take with them in life. When heavy rain swamped the Summerfield softball field during the District championship game between Whiteford and Sand Creek, parents and community members decided to wait it out. Instead of heading for home and coming back another day, people grabbed shovels and rakes and went to work, getting the field into playing shape for the game to go on. It was a massive, and impressive, effort.
Whiteford lost that day, closing a 29-5 season in what was the 41st and final one for Hubbard as the Bobcats’ head softball coach. But Hubbard wasn’t thinking about herself. She was touched by the effort of the fans.
“That’s probably the biggest reason that I lasted so long coaching at Whiteford,” Hubbard said. “It’s the community. It’s the people. Over all of my years here, there has always been a parent, or group of parents, that stepped up and did whatever needed to be done. That’s why I’m here.
“No, we didn’t win that day, but what an important lesson for our girls. Pick the community you want to live in. This community, Whiteford, has been great to be a part of. I wouldn’t have lasted anyplace else this long.”
Hubbard isn’t necessarily leaving the community, just stepping down as head softball coach. She is the only softball coach Whiteford has ever known. She was the varsity track coach from 1974 to 1978 before stepping down as track coach to concentrate on the other two varsity sports she was coaching at Whiteford – volleyball and basketball. That’s when a group of girls approached her and asked if she would coach them in a new sport at Whiteford – fast-pitch softball.
“When I talk about my coach, I talk about ‘my coach,’” said Karen Hubbard, who was a three-sport star at Whiteford in the 1970s and was on that first Bobcat softball team. “She was my coach for every single sport. She knew everything about every sport and if she didn’t know something, she brought someone in, and they would help us learn.”
Coach Hubbard went to high school at Blissfield before Title IX changed the sports landscape for girls. She attended Western Michigan University, however, and played basketball, volleyball and field hockey for the Broncos. After college she played recreation basketball and fast-pitch softball.
“I wasn’t a pitcher, but I was bored at practice one day, so I picked up the ball and taught myself how to pitch,” she said. “I would pitch batting practice. I didn’t like just standing around.”
She realized early on that having a pitcher was the key component to building a softball team. Early on, she developed pitchers at Whiteford such as Holly (Schmidt) Bunge and Tina (Knaggs) Kiefer. While Karen Hubbard pitched that first season, leading the Bobcat to the Tri-County Conference championship, Bunge took the circle for the next three seasons then Kiefer took over later and led Whiteford to its first-ever state championship in 1984.
“I didn’t want to pitch,” Bunge recalled. “As a freshman, I played outfield. She said to me, ‘I want you to start pitching.’ But I didn’t want to pitch. She said, ‘you either pitch, or you’ll sit next to me.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll pitch.’ She knew what needed to be done for the team to be successful.”
Kiefer wasn’t in high school yet when the sport started at Whiteford, but Hubbard made her the team manager while working with her as a pitcher. It’s a system that has worked for decades – identifying a young athlete, work with them as a pitcher, have them play a role with the team as a manager and, eventually, become the team’s go-to pitcher.
“I taught middle school gym and English,” Hubbard said. “I figured out who might be successful as a pitcher and I’d bring them in before school and work with them.”
Kiefer recalls going down to the gym during study hall and pitching while Hubbard watched.
“I think I was one of the first managers,” she said. “She instilled confidence in me. She used to tell me ‘don’t think, just do.’” Kiefer not only played for Hubbard, she also coached with her for a few years and watched as her two daughters played the sport for her.
“It was a very positive experience for me and very enlightening,” she said. “She taught us work ethic, self-discipline and the value of teamwork. We all had respect for her.”
Hubbard stopped coaching varsity volleyball in 1980 but held onto the basketball job until 2003. She’s still the winningest girls basketball coach in Tri-County Conference history.
One of her Bobcat basketball teams reached the state championship game. Combined through four sports, Hubbard had a 1,415-660 record in 81 varsity seasons of coaching. In the four sports combined, her teams won 24 TCC titles, 31 District championships and 15 Regional titles. She coached dozens of All-State athletes and a lot of girls that would go on to play college sports.
“We’ve been blessed with some good athletes but more than that good people who want to get better,” she said. “Just think of how many good one’s we’ve had.”
Lindsey Walker recently graduated with a number of Whiteford career softball records. She began working with her coach in elementary school.
“She teaches you a lot about life and softball,” Walker said. “Some coaches just want to win. She always wants us to have fun first. She lets you develop your own skills, but she pushes you.”
Hubbard said having fun has been a staple of her coaching philosophy.
“We talk about it every day,” she said. “If we’re not having fun, what are we doing this for? At lot of people don’t remember that. Kids don’t try and do something wrong. If they can’t do it right, No. 1, you’ve got to understand they may not have the ability or if they don’t understand you need to teach it a different way or teach it better.”
Hubbard has officially retired as head coach but isn’t leaving the program altogether. Once the next coach is hired, she intends to become an assistant coach for the team.
“I haven’t lost the passion to work with kids,” she said. “But, I’m 68 and they are still 16. I get to coach and be part of it and work with the kids, but I don’t have to do the other stuff. It’s the perfect time for the transition.”