BEECHER | In his 12 years as Beecher's softball coach, Kevin Hayhurst has been named Times Illinois Coach of the Year after four seasons, including this one.
And what meaning does he take from snapping a tie with his former Thornwood boss, Gary Lagesse, atop the all-time list?
"It means I'm old," Hayhurst said.
At 57 next month, Hayhurst is, in truth, closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But after 29 years as a teacher at Thornwood, including 13 seasons and three state titles as an assistant under Lagesse, seven as the Thunderbirds' boys basketball coach and the last dozen commuting to his home town to coach softball, he says he'll keep coaching, "as long as it keeps being fun."
This Ladycats edition, then, must have added a few more years to his calendar.
"Yeah, it was fun," Hayhurst said. "I told the kids it was fun even during the tryouts, just being around the kids, because of how motivated they were. You don't have to be eyeballing them to know that they're working hard on their own."
Hayhurst likes hard workers, and he makes sure they get plenty of hard work. Though the Ladycats have lost just two River Valley Conference games in 12 seasons, they load up their nonconference schedule with bigger and/or playoff-pedigreed schools.
This year's squad finished 33-9, four of those losses coming to teams who won state trophies, four more to teams that eventually won Class 3A or 4A regionals and one to an Indiana Class 3A state quarterfinalist. Oh, and the Ladycats managed to beat eventual Class 4A runner-up Sandburg along the way.
"We try to build our schedule up and make sure we have a base of facing good, quality hitters as well as pitchers so we're able to reach that level when the time comes," Hayhurst said. "In the IHSA championships, everybody makes the state tournament regardless of your record. So record, to me, doesn't mean anything. Going into regional, it's the quality of competition that you've played."
Regardless of whether records mean anything, that Beecher, with just three seniors and two juniors on the roster, sat at 3-4 a week into the season meant Hayhurst had some work to do.
"We kept things in perspective at that particular time," he said. "We were playing teams like Moline, that challenges for a 4A championship year in and year out, Sterling and Marengo — Sterling got third place in 3A. We said, 'Let's see how we do here. It's the first couple weeks of the season, just coming out of the gym.'"
Hayhurst's biggest challenge, he said, was blending his freshmen with older players. His biggest surprise?
"The amount of hard balls that we squared up," he said. "I could not believe, day in and day out, how many line drives and how hard the ball was being hit, and how many actual home runs we ended up having for the season."
Taylor Johnson, a freshman, set the school record with 18 homers. Sarah Crews, a senior pitcher, had 10. As a team, Beecher hit .421 with 34 homers.
"To be an effective team, you have to have contributions from one through nine," Hayhurst said.. "We were getting contributions one through 12, one through 13. We were a very deep team as the season went along. I could plug in different kids in different spots and that's what made us a real good softball team."
Surely, the coach had something to do with it.
"You coach the same. You put the same amount of time in, you work the best you can to try to get all the potential you can out of every player, one through 18," Hayhurst said. "This particular year, these kids stay after, they come early. The freshmen, in eighth grade they won third in state in IESA. They have some kind of presence. They expect to win.
"Sometimes these kids make you look good as a coach. Send up a pinch-hitter, they come through with a hit. People say you did a good job there. Those kids in the dugout were real good."
"I had a lot of kids sitting here that may have thought they should have been starting," Hayhurst said. "But they just quietly went out and did their jobs and never let a peep out about anything negative. That's what's great about a team. They accepted their roles. That's a key to any team's success."