By Craig Pearson
CLAY CITY — Clay County farmer Roger Rhodes’ thoughts on the family farm could also go for the Clay City softball team’s fortunes this season.
“We’re on schedule this year. It’s been a pretty good spring,” Rhodes said, referring to his farming business with his brother Rusty Rhodes.
Rhodes took over the Eels’ softball program in 2006, one year after daughter Loni graduated after a four-year career for the Eels.
Clay City is 18-3 this year and within two games of reaching the Class A state finals. The Eels take on Turkey Run on Saturday in the Class A North Daviess Regional.
Roger saw the Eels come up short in the championship of the sectional four straight years under three different coaches during his daughter’s playing career.
“I’ve always loved softball,” Roger said. “Someone had to start the program and stay with it for a while. I’ve been working with the youth league. That was my goal.”
Rhodes could have stood by while the program struggled for stability.
“You gotta make time to do what you want to do in life,” Rhodes explained.
The head coach knew he was inheriting a team destined for success.
“They can go as far as they believe in themselves,” Rhodes said. “I knew we were going to have a good team. The girls have worked hard over past summers. They’ve all had some good coaching.”
Among the influences on his players are Jeff Jacso, who has helped freshman pitcher Shelby Targett the last couple years, and Gary Iocoangelli. Rhodes also mentioned Vaughn Bettenbrock, whose daughter Kari played for Clay City and is now a junior on Indiana University’s team.
“And my daughter Loni, she’s been a big help and knows a lot about the game,” Rhodes said.
Loni Rhodes, a key left-handed bat in the Eels’ lineup for four years, has been a student at Indiana State the past two years, where she spent one fall season playing for the Sycamores’ softball team.
While Loni recognized that her dad was knowledgeable of the game, she was “kind of surprised that he wanted to coach after I finished up.”
She’s been pleasantly surprised by how his approach has changed from father to coach.
“He was a hothead at my games, and that pushed me to the best of my ability. He was so hard on me and pushed me, but he’s done good with the girls,” she said. “He’s not been too edgy with the girls. The funny thing is I’m the one who gets mad and am more of the disciplinarian. It takes both to make a team go.”
The players seem to have responded to the coaching.
Senior second baseman Danielle Schindler spoke at a recent team gathering, recalling something Loni Rhodes’ told the team at the beginning of the season.
“I told girls this year’s going to be a lot different. Practices will be a lot tougher. Everything’s going to be a lot different, but the hard work and dedication will pay off when you guys win sectionals.”
“Danielle said ‘it has paid off. We won sectionals and every minute was worth it.’”
Both Roger and Loni have enjoyed spending time together on the softball field, like the old days when dad coached his daughter’s tee-ball team.
“We pretty much both been around the game for a long time,” Loni said. “There’s a few times, I wonder why he’ll do something and he’ll be the same way but we keep arguments to a minimum. If we do have an argument, we keep it at the house.”
Roger hopes to continue coaching in the coming springs, continuing to make for some longer nights in the fields than in the past. Loni will be living in Indianapolis beginning in the fall to attend the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI, but still plans to be there next year for every practice and game.
“I just have to work my schedule out, do homework on the bus,” Loni said.
When coaches show that kind of dedication, it’s hard for the players not to follow their lead.
Craig Pearson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone after 4 p.m. at (812) 231-4357. Read his web log at blogs.tribstar.com/craigpearson.