By ANDY HEINTZ
Courier sports staff
---- — OTTUMWA -- On Friday, an estimated 80 or more Ottumwa softball alumni from as far away as Georgia will cram into Huston Field to watch the No. 1 ranked Bulldog softball team take on two highly ranked opponents to kick off a reunion weekend that will celebrate legendary softball coach Frank Huston's 40th year at the helm of Ottumwa's renowned program.
While the games alone -- the first against No. 2 ranked Pleasant Valley (Class 5A) at 5.p.m., the second against No. 6 (Class 5A) ranked Waukee at 7 p.m. -- will fill the night with a special ambience, the quality of the competition isn't the main motivation for the reunion.
For the most part, these former Bulldogs -- some coming in from Florida, others from Colorado, some making the trek from Virginia, or North Carolina, or South Dakota, or, yes, even Georgia -- will be there to pay homage to Huston and incredible edifice of success he and his players have built, brick by brick; over the past 40 years."Coach means so much to so many of us," Amy Crouse-Spurgeon, a member of the alumni committee that put together the event and a player on the 1995 state championship team, said. "It would give you gooesebumps to see how far some were willing to travel for this."Spurgeon, however, wasn't surprised by how many people were willing to venture back to Ottumwa this weekend.
"We [the softball committee] expected this because we knew how much he [Huston] and the program have meant to all these girls over the years," Spurgeon said.
After the games, an alumni social will be put on at Courtside Bar and Grill. Then, on Saturday, former player will be pitted against former player in a game that will be played in the familiar confines of Huston Field; a place that conjures up cherished memories for so many former Bulldogs. The alumni will arrive at the field at 10 a.m. and ceremonies are scheduled to start at 11 a.m. The game itself will begin at 11:30 a.m. The public is invited to attend all the reunion events.
"It's going to be neat for them to see our current team play," Huston said about his former players. "It will be good to renew friendships with them. It's always good to rekindle the good memories of season's past."
On Thursday afternoon, the softball committee, which consists of five former softball players --Crouse-Spurgeon, 1995; Missy Carson-Roark, 1978, Kelly Coulter, 1994; Sherry Strunk, 1985; Kristen Cavison, 1992; -- were huddled near some picnic tables busily getting ready for a weekend that, after months of meticulous planning, was now only a day away.
"We spent many hours tracking down alumni players," Coulter said, "Facebook has been a big help there. It's been kind of reunion itself in the last nine or 10 months."
The tables were decorated and ornamented by pictures sent by past players that told the story of Ottumwa softball through the years.
"There's 40 years of pictures here," Crouse-Spurgeon said. "I've tried to hit every age generation."
For Huston, who started coaching in Ottumwa when President Richard Nixon was knee-deep in Watergate hearings and gas only costed 39 cents a gallons, the ennobled phrase legend is an apt one. Success-wise, the veteran coach's record speaks for itself: two state championships (1976, 1995), 26 state appearances, 14 final four appearances, 49 tournament victories, 95 All-State players, 75 young women who went on to play college, including 12 Division 1 players; 1990 National Softball Coach of the Year, being named to the Iowa Softball Hall of Fame in 1994, an .811 winning percentage (the highest win percentage of any coach in the nation), etc., etc., etc.
"He definitely has a unique style of coaching," Coulter said. "There is just something there that makes the magic happen all the time."
While the technology in softball is much different than when Huston started as skipper at Ottumwa, one thing has remained consistent: The Bulldogs winning legacy."We just had some kids who were really good athletes to start with and that tradition continues," Roark, who played on the 1976 championship team, said.And, this legacy continues to foster an interest in softball for generations of young girls who grow up watching the Bulldogs play.
"You grow up watching the softball team play and wanting to be a softball player," Cavison said.
While the coach has learned some new tricks over the years, some strategies have withstood the test of time. Coulter said sometimes, because of their past playing experience, she and other alums know what's going to happen next on the field before it even happens.
"We can say, 'Oh she's going to bunt, because we still know the signs," Crouse-Spurgeon said.
"The foundation of his program hasn't changed," Roark added. "He just has a system that has worked."
But, more than all the accolades and statistical prodigies Huston's program has accumulated over the years, are the memories that have been imprinted into the heart's and minds of the players who have put on a Bulldog uniform. And, today, some of these women get to watch their own daughters play for the same coach as them.
"Another reason we're so closely connected is Missy, Sherry [Strunk] and I all have daughters -- Olivia Roark, Sydney Strunk, Chloe Davis -- that play for the team now," Crouse-Spurgeon said. "That means a lot."
Furthermore, the young women who have donned a Bulldog uniform, also have forged a relationship with the greater Ottumwa community that has remains entrenched long after their playing days are over.
"People will stop you a say, 'hey you used to play for the softball team,'" Crouse-Spurgeon said.