OTTUMWA — Less a week had passed since Frank Huston made the emotional announcement that he had coached his last softball game when the only man to guide the Ottumwa High School softball program returned to the facility that bears his name.
Huston sat back on a picnic bench looking over the home field of the Bulldog softball team, both of which Huston helped build from the ground up after arriving from Gladbook in 1974 to be a teacher and head coach of Ottumwa High School girls basketball, track and softball. After six days to think about it, was there even a thought at that moment that Huston might change his mind and return for a 54th season as a head softball coach?
"I can't look back like that," Huston said. "This wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. You kind of evaluate after each season if you can do it one more time. In recent years, this decision (to retire) has been more and more on my mind."
In fact, what no one knew other than Huston was how historic the 46th season of Ottumwa High School softball would be. After nearly retiring following his 45th season, which ended with an eight-inning regional championship loss to Indianola, Huston had made up his mind before the first pitch of the 2019 season that this summer would be his final one in charge of the Bulldogs.
"I thought about it seriously after the 2013 season when we graduated so many seniors from a team that had qualified for three of the last four state tournaments," Huston said. "You kind of look at the personnel each year and who's coming up. I think, after 2013, it really crossed my mind that this final season was getting closer."
Huston admitted that, if not for coming so close without qualifying for state in 2018, that Huston would have retired after last season. That was not the case this year even as Ottumwa's state tournament hopes again were hanging in the balance during extra innings of a regional championship game on the road at Muscatine. The Muskies erased deficits of 7-3 and 9-7, tying the game twice and putting the winning run in scoring position in the bottom of the seventh.
One more hit could have sent Muscatine to state and, according the Huston, would have brought his coaching career to an end at Kent-Stein Park.
"I had pretty well made up my mind. I kind of knew what was going to happen all season, but I didn't think it would be fair to announce it at the start of the season," Huston said. "The season would have been all about me and put extra pressure on the team. You want that emphasis to be put on the team, so I tried to keep a lid on it as well as I could.
"I'd made up my mind before the Muscatine game. I had told the coaches (Matt Mischler, Sherry Strunk and Olivia Roark) that this was going to be it. I didn't want to that game to be the deciding factor."
Ultimately, Huston's final victory as a head softball coach (his 1,853rd overall and 1,698th at Ottumwa) would be one to always remember. Twice, Ottumwa shook off Muscatine rallies and ultimately prevailed with a 12-9 win in nine innings to give Huston a record-tying 28th ride to the state softball tournament.
"When you really look back to the previous years, that was our fourth extra-inning game as a visiting team to go to the state tournament and didn't make it," Huston said. "I kind of had reflections going through my head of the dark side of things and if it was going to happen to us again."
While there were some bitter pills to swallow over five decades as a head coach, most of the memories Huston takes away from his time as an instructor of young minds comes are extremely positive. Huston is the only coach in the history of Ottumwa High School to have guided both a softball and girls basketball team to state, having coached the Bulldogs on the hardwood to 396 wins over 16 season including a trip to the 1993 girls state basketball tournament. The coaching resume for Huston also includes coaching softball at Indian Hills during the spring seasons of 1989 and 1990.
"Indian Hills actually played out here (at Huston Field) in those days," Huston said. "We actually qualified for the national tournament during my first year. That kind of caused a little conflict with my job at Ottumwa. Ultimately, given the choice, I chose to coach here."
Huston retired as a full-time teacher at Ottumwa in 2002, but continued to coaching softball on a high level. That standard for Huston began immediately as Bulldog softball coach, guiding OHS to the first of two state titles just two years after taking over the newly-started athletic program.
"We were having a tremendous basketball season my first year at Ottumwa. We were 20-4 and I had parents coming up to me telling me that the girls were actually better at softball than they were at basketball," Huston recalled. "There were a couple of school board members that had a tremendous interest who had interest in a program with the way we were going, so they immediately started track and softball.
"That first softball team jump-started our success as a program. They started out 104-11 with some of those losses coming at the state tournament. In those years, you could name about five teams out of the 307 that were playing who were going win the state tournament. We immediately became one of those names."
Huston was the coach of girls basketball, track and softball for most of his first decade as a head coach at Gladbrook, Pekin and Ottumwa. Each of the past 53 years of Huston's life has included a summer filled with softball, a routine that will change moving forward with the summer of 2020 looming as the first in which Huston's calendar during the months of June and July will be completely wide open.
"I don't have any plans on how to spend retirement," Huston said. "I'm sure as we get done with the initial coaching search and the dust starts to settle, I'll start to look forward to what's next.
Obviously, I'll have to do something. Janey (Huston's wife) and I go to Florida every January. That's probably going to get extended. The hardest part is figuring out something to do next summer that's not related to softball."