FORT DODGE — The 1,700th win in program history will be a milestone unlike any accomplished by an Ottumwa High School softball team next season.
It will require the Bulldogs to find their first two wins next season in their first season as a program without Frank Huston at the helm.
After 53 seasons of coaching softball, including all 46 seasons in the history of the Ottumwa softball program, Huston made it official last Wednesday afternoon on Veterans Field at the Harlan Rogers Sports Complex. Following a 4-1 loss to Indianola in one of two 5A state tournament consolation games, Huston gathered his team together just like after any other game.
Unlike those other games, Huston couldn't get a word out without letting emotions overcome him. His tears were the first of many to fall as players, coaches and parents began to react after the active dean of Iowa High School softball coaches brought his legendary career to a close.
"It's ironic. My very first year as a head coach, we played on Frank's field trying to get to the state tournament. Now, I'm playing at state against Frank," said Indianola head coach Stacy Evans, who wrapped up her 20th season as head coach winning what proved to be Huston's final game. "It's such a different angle, but what a remarkable guy. He's leaving the cookie jar full. There are a lot of good kids coming up and, when you're ready to leave as a head coach, you want to leave a good system in place."
From former players to now former coaching contemporaries have reached out to congratulate Huston and share memories of a man who started coaching in Ottumwa when President Richard Nixon was knee-deep in Watergate hearings and gas only cost 39 cents a gallons. Of course, that was after Huston had already put in seven seasons as a head coach winning 155 out of his first 230 games coached at Gladbrook and Pekin.
"Frank Huston shaped what was great about high school softball in Iowa," said Jim White, who qualified for 17 state tournaments with Clear Creek-Amana and Solon. "He provided the energy to keep it growing for his athletes, his community, but also everone else associated with the game. He leaves an amazing legacy."
Lindsay Diehl, the current head softball coach at Indian Hills Community College, led her first state tournament team as a head coach at Clarke to state with a regional championship win at Huston Field back in 2013. Diehl was at Harlan Rogers Park last Wednesday, where word had quickly spread about Huston's announcement.
"Frank's been great from the times I've coached against him at Clarke to working with him to really kind of solidify that relationship the Ottumwa and Indian Hills softball programs have had since I've taken over," Diehl said. "He's somebody that has been around forever and had so many great players. I understand him wanting to step away. It's exhausting. I can understand him wanting to hand the torch over to someone else."
Many different players of Huston's have followed in the footsteps of their coach, from Mandi Moore at Keokuk to Amber Doyle at Roland-Story, in becoming softball coaches themselves. Olivia Roark, who was a part of Ottumwa's 26th and 27th state tournament appearances as a player for Huston in 2012 and 2013, was part of this historic final season of Bulldog softball as an assistant coach with the Bulldogs holding the last state trophy earned by Huston as the head coach broke the news to his team following last Wednesday's loss.
"It's still hard to take in. It's still hard to swallow," Roark said. "I still really can't believe it and I don't want it to be true. He just told us that it's time. I knew at some point it was coming. I just didn't think it would be this year. He's been a part of my softball career for so long. He's taught me so much about the game as a player and as a coach. He's been such a great mentor. I can't imagine in being involved in another program. He's coached my mom (Missy Cason-Roark) and he's coached me. It's amazing that he's been around that long.
"You don't want him to go because he's been so successful. You don't want it to end because it's been so great to have him as part of the sport over the years. You just wish it could continue."
Huston finishes his career having won 1,853 games in 53 seasons, including all 46 seasons that the Ottumwa High School softball program has existed. Huston finishes second to former ADM and Cedar Rapids Jefferson coach Larry Niemeyer in career wins with 1,853 and matched Neimeyer this summer by reaching 28 state tournaments as a head coach.
Paige Schreiner, who helped Huston reach his 26th state tournament as a senior all-state shortstop in 2012, had a feeling that milestone would be the last one for her former legendary head coach.
Once they made it (this season), I had a feeling that this would be it," Schreiner said. "At the 40-year reunion we had for Ottumwa Softball (in 2013), we filled the Hotel Ottumwa and talked about (or in some instances roasted) Frank all evening. It’s one of my favorite memories of Frank because he dislikes nothing more than being the center of attention."
The huge group of former players who were able to make it to the reunion is a testament to Frank as a coach and the program he built. You don’t have the successful and supportive culture in every program."
Evans, who has gone up against Huston several times over the past two decades as a head coach, talked about positive impact Huston has had over the years on the current coaches in the sport. Evans made sure, after discovering that Huston had announced his retirement last Wednesday, to personally congratulate him on his incredible career.
"There are a lot of us coaches that needed mentors when we were starting out. Frank was always that guy that I could go to and ask questions about how to do things the right way," Evans said. "I'm just glad that Frank was a part of my path and my journey as a coach. We've become good friends over the years.
"He's basically built that field in Ottumwa. I remember when the poles there used to be on the field and they had to push them back. That man's blood, sweat and tears have been put into that system. I know the field is named after him, but I hope they always choose to make sure Frank's name is always stamped into that program. It's a credit to him. There are not of lot of coaches that outlasted him."