FORT DODGE — There was a towel left behind in the dugout. There was also a batting glove left to retrieve for a player.
Then, there was an announcement with a whole lot of tears and hugs to follow.
Frank Huston made sure everything was squared away once more on Wednesday following his 2,361st game as a head softball coach before making one of the most historic announcements in the history of Ottumwa High School athletics. After 53 seasons as a head softball coach, including all 47 seasons in the history of the Ottumwa Bulldog softball program, Huston announced his retirement following a 4-1 loss to Indianola in the Class 5A state softball tournament consolation game.
"Impending retirement, or whatever you want to call it, finishing here at the state tournament has been in the works for awhile because of my age," Huston said. "It's probably been in the works for the past couple of years. I'm going to be 77 before the next season starts. It was starting to wear down.
"Mish (Ottumwa assistant softball coach Matt Mischler) has been with me for the past 20 years. These players have been with for several years now. I won't say I'm a burden on anybody, but those people from the parents to the volunteers deserve someone that can do all the things that I used to do."
For most of the day, even in the moments after Kacy Nickerson's fly ball to right field was caught by Indianola junior Bella Bingaman for the final out of the contest at Veterans Field, Huston approached the game just like any other over the past five decades. It was only after the Bulldogs gathered together in right field did things go differently as Huston initially sat down to address his team before quickly stepping away to wipe the tears away from eyes.
"That's when we knew for sure. Personally, I had no idea it was coming," Ottumwa junior Hannah Huisingia said before wiping away tears of her own. "It's indescribable. It really wasn't expected. I'm a little more upset because we didn't play our best. That hurts a little bit more, knowing that was our last game with Frank, but overall it's been a hell of a ride having Frank as my coach.
"He's taught me, along with the rest of my teammates, so much. I can only wish him the best from here on. I know he'll still be there at every game yelling at us from outside the fence."
Indianola never trailed taking the rubber match with Ottumwa this season after the teams split a varsity doubleheader at Indianola back on June 6. Two errors helped the Indians score two of their first three runs while a solo home run in the first inning by Brooke Tucker and a two-out RBI single by Diamond Mosley in the second accounted for all four runs on the board.
Ottumwa's lone run came after back-to-back two-out hits in the second inning by Zoey Jones and Josie Lemonds. Seven different Bulldogs had a hit in the final game of Huston's coaching career including a fourth-inning single by Abby Bowers in her final game in an OHS uniform.
After collecting her team-leading second hit of the game to lead off the seventh, Zoey Jones moved to second on a two-out hit by younger sister Madelyn, giving Nickerson a chance to tie the game with what would have been her fifth home run of the season. Nickerson pitched four scorless innings in relief of Ashton Brown, recording three strikeouts, before breaking down with the rest of her teammates following Huston's announcement.
"I'm just so glad that we got here to state and made it 28 trips to state for Frank," Nickerson said. "We all did it for Frank. It's very heartbreaking that he's not coaching any more. We're all going to miss him, but every game we play next season is going to be for him knowing that he was such a great coach. He's going to be missed."
Huston's 28th state tournament appearances ties former ADM and Cedar Rapids Jefferson coach Larry Niemeyer for the most in Iowa High School softball history. Only Neimeyer ranks ahead of Huston nationally in total victories as Huston finishes his career with 1,853 wins, the final of which came in last Tuesday's nine-inning 12-9 victory at Muscatine to clinch a trip to state.
The Bulldogs had fallen one win short of a state tournament bid each of the past two years, including a 3-2 loss in eight innings at Indianola last July. Coming that close without qualifying for state fueled Huston to extend his career to a 53rd season.
"I told my wife, Janey, that I'd be done last year if we either got blown out in that game or qualified for state," Huston said. "You couldn't quit after last year. It's awful hard to walk away after this. As I've told the girls, this is the best quality in terms of depth from eighth grade through 11th grade that we've had in quite awhile."
Huston's legendary resume includes 15 trips to the state tournament semifinals, five trips to a state softball championship games and state championships won with the Bulldogs in 1976 and 1995. Huston earned the IGHSAU Golden Plaque of Distinction Award in 2013, his 40th season at Ottumwa which included a No. 1 ranking during the season and ended with a fourth-place finish in the 5A state tournament.
The Sioux City native started the Bulldog softball program in 1974. Huston graduated from Northern Iowa in 1966 and taught business education at Gladbrook, Pekin and Ottumwa. He was also a successful basketball coach with 396 career wins in the sport.
Huston is already a hall of fame basketball and softball coach. He was named to Iowa Softball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1994 and is also a member of the Girls Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. In 1990, he was named the National Softball Coach of the Year and, this past spring, Huston was honored at the annual Ottumwa A-Club banquet as the inaugural winner of the Dan Staggs Award, given in honor of the longtime Ottumwa High School coach, official and instructor for the sport of tennis at all levels who passed away this past fall.
After the announcement, Huston addressed his team as Ottumwa softball supporters watched on including many parents of players and former players with tears in their eyes. After making sure the team had all their state tournament awards, Huston was greeted by his wife before walking off the diamond for the final time as a head coach.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," Huston said.