OTTUMWA – All that was missing Sunday were some bats, some balls, some gloves and some bases.
And a third base coaching box for Frank Huston to stand in just one more time.
Former players, friends and family gathered at Huston Field to honor the only coach in the great history of the Ottumwa High School softball program. Huston, who announced his retirement after 53 years as a head coach including the past 46 at Ottumwa, shared hugs and stories on a truly emotional afternoon.
“This has been a terrific day. I’ve seen players from my first team (at Ottumwa) in 1974 and players from my last team,” Huston said. “There were people that came a long way. There were some kids that will Ottumwa softball players in the future. There were certainly a whole lot of people in between. There were certainly a lot of generational discussions going on.”
Many of the former 101 all-state players and members of the 28 state tournament teams coached by Huston came back to reminisce with the man that made such a difference in the lives of so many young women. Traci Fitzsimmons, who recorded a hall-of-fame career while helping Ottumwa qualify for the state tournament in 1979, 1980 and 1981, talked about the influence Huston made in continuing her playing career and education at Creighton University.
“Frank was very instrumental in helping me get to Creighton and get a full ride for softball, which helped me get into nursing school,” Fitzsimmons said. “Softball is one thing. Being able to get into a great school and get a great degree that you can continue with your entire life is something that’s not matched.”
Huston finishes his career having won 1,853 games in 53 seasons, including all 1,698 wins in the 46 seasons that Ottumwa’s softball program has existed. In his final season, Huston matched Larry Niemeyer by reaching his 28th state tournament, all with the Bulldogs.
It was after Ottumwa’s final game, a 4-1 loss in the state tournament’s consolation round, that Huston finally broke the news to the members of what would prove to be the historic 2019 Bulldog softball squad. Many of those same players that shared in the emotional on field announcement in Fort Dodge were back at Huston Field to honor their coach on Sunday.
“Some girls were talking about it on the bus going to that game that he might be retiring. I didn’t believe it until I saw him step back before meeting with the team,” current OHS senior Kaylee Bix said. “It’s going to be really different not having him as our head coach next year. I think we just need to remember in the back of our minds what advice Frank would give us.
“It’s going to be so different without Frank as the head coach of this program,” said Morgan Greiner, a senior on what proved to be Huston’s final Ottumwa softball team. “I feel bad for the younger girls. Those girls from the younger generations won’t get to have him as a head coach.”
Beyond the wins, championships and trips to state were the memories and the life lessons that Huston provided every player that wore an Ottumwa softball uniform. Sunday provided those players a chance to share in those memories of Huston and give thanks to a man that dedicated over five decades of his life to the sport.
“We had a group of players from the 1970s. We had a group of players from the 1980s. Everyone kind of migrated to each other to share the memories they made together. That was the fun part,” Huston said. “We’ve had reunions over different years, but every time you can get a huge gathering of softball alumni, family, friends and volunteers, it’s something special.”
Only a select few close to Huston knew just how historic this past softball season would be after nearly deciding to retire at the end of the 2018 campaign. On his way to his 28th and final state softball tournament as head coach, Huston brought his final Bulldog softball team to Roland-Story to practice one day before taking the field in Fort Dodge against Waukee.
There, former Ottumwa state champion and current Roland-Story head softball coach Amber Doyle talked with her former coach about his decision to retire.
“He kind of mentioned where he was in his decision-making process. I just asked him if he felt right about it,” Doyle said. “I’m going to support him whatever he would have decided, but I’m glad that he felt good about the decision.
“The nice thing for all the girls that have played for him is that you know they’ll be trained well. I felt like I knew how to play good softball through the roots I had developed here playing for Frank. Even now, when I’m thinking about running a practice, I can see him in my mind running the practice with me as a player. That’s something special I get to carry on as a coach. The value Frank put in the little things, having high expectations and playing hard for each other.”
When the softball season begins this May, it will do so for the first time in 53 years without Frank Huston preparing a team to take the diamond. It will be the first time in the history of the Ottumwa softball program that Huston will not be at the helm of the ship when the 2020 season begins.
“I think he’s done well to keep it going as long as he has,” Fitzsimmons said. “For someone to coach college sports as long as he has is pretty amazing. I think it’s kept him young with all the girls and all of our craziness. He’s just so looked up to.
“He’s such a legacy for both for Ottumwa and for the entire state. I’m just really lucky to be one of girls that he’s been able to help. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”