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QA: Softball season in review

If you ask graduates that played for me, one thing that coach Irby would say is, I say fight. Fight for job, fight for your family, fight for your marriage. It is too easy to quit. It is too easy to lay down. I think we live in a society where it becomes a way of life. I want these girls to fight to the last out. That’s one thing, as you say that, I will remember that as one of the positives.

The softball season ended sooner than the Lady Blues had hoped. The season was tough for Graham and the Blues went through some growing pains. 

I sat down with Blues head coach Phillip Irby on Thursday afternoon to discuss his thoughts at the end of the season.

Kyle Borne: What are your thoughts on the  season and what are your general feelings?

Phillip Irby: In my 23-years it was probably one of my roughest years. Simply because in a year like this you coach harder than you have ever coached. You can’t make the plays for them at the end of the day, but you go back and re-evaluate everything you do. I had a couple of days to reflect on it. The reality is at any one time we started seven sophomores and a freshman in the lineup. We were young. We won’t get to say that anymore. 

There were some good things that came out of our year, some quality things. I think one of the things that a year like this does is, you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. In a season like this, so many close games that we had. Really each game could come down to one play.  One swing of a bat. A  key hit in a key situation. You can flip this season and we could have been 6-1 in district with a couple of plays. What I tell our younger girls is let that burn in you and understand the value of an out, understand the value of one at bat, one inning and one pitch. 

At the end of the day, I think that is the lesson we learned is that a game doesn’t come down to one pitch or one swing. It comes down to eliminating your mistakes and finding ways to win. That will be my focus all year next year, is finding a way to win. Again, we were young, we were talented.In a season like this, the ball, for whatever reason, bounces the wrong way, bounces off you wrong, you know it hits bag and goes foul instead of hitting fair. This truly is a game of inches and this year it just didn’t go our way.

I was encouraged with a lot. If you would have told me that we would be starting those young girls all year long, I would have probably said, whoa. 

Excluding one ball game, we were in every game. I hated it for those seniors, because they have led for the last three years. A person could coach their whole career and not coach a Lexie Allen. Not just as pitcher, but as a batter, as a player, as a competitor. Taylor Johnson, Rylee Zimmer, just great kids. They will realize they left a good legacy. Right now they think they left a bad legacy, but Lexie set records at this school that may never be broken. There was a lot to learn from this year. There are a lot of things to get better, obviously. We turn around and go to a new district. We are familiar with that district. As I tell people, jokingly we (coaches) call it murderer’s row-Wylie, Brownwood, Stephenville. But for softball Burkburnett is always going to be good, Iowa Park is good, Vernon is good. So it doesn’t change for us. What has to change for us is our mentality to win. We have to have a sense of urgency to win.

KB: Wouldn’t you say, maybe I am wrong, but some of those close games (this year) will definitely help with the close games next year? They have been there now and they don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.

PI: Yeah, the thing is, I have been through seasons where you only have one or two ball games that come down to one run. We played every ball game within one or two runs. That has to sink in. They have to learn from it. You don’t want to see young girls go through that disappointment, but you also hope it burns inside of them. They don’t want to be that. They don’t want it to end tragically. The biggest thing it teaches them, when we have success in the future, they will know how that other team feels. I have always said you have to be a good loser to be a good winner. So many times we wanted to have a meltdown, but we carried ourselves with class. I think that teaches you how to carry yourself with class when you are a winner too. 

I have always said this, the future is bright in Graham, Texas for softball. We have some great young talent coming last year. They have played a lot of select ball, the year behind them. There are a lot of softball players in Graham. I tell these girls, even these young girls, there are some girls coming to get your jobs next year so you better be ready for it. We started a freshman at third, that probably wasn’t ready for it, but she was the best equipped for us. She grew up a lot in just three ball games. Those young players, it’s only positive for them. A lot of these schools, a sophomore wouldn’t play until their junior/senior year. These girls got a whole season under the belt as sophomores, starting on the varsity. That has to be a positive.

KB: When you look at the way the season progressed the defensive play did get better as the season went on, but it was still, kind of that enigma, but what do you think mentally the approach will be to try to nip that earlier. 

PI: Like I said, I do believe it was mental. It was the same girls who the year before made every play. I think it snow balls and I think our defense effects our offense, to be honest. When you struggle defensively you carry it to the plate with you. The same thing can be said when you struggle at the plate you bring it to the field with you defensively. Part of growing up as a high school softball player is understanding that there is an defensive side of the game and a offensive side of the game. It’s hard to get them to understand you can’t carry an at-bat with you to the field, because you will boot the first ball. Part of growing up is learning how to turn that off and now I got to go make a defensive play. 

The way we do that, I think as a coach, I need to put them in more competitive situations to where there is a consequence if they don’t do it. I hate to say running or anything like that, but it tells me we need to compete more. Whether it is in the cages, you know just make it a competition for them. Like I said, in my 23 years I have seen kids come out and have an awful year, and this is a game your first 10 at-bats, whether you do it right or wrong, if you go 8-for-10 it can get contagious and all of sudden you have a great year. On the same hand if you go out and struggle early in the year you can never turn it around. 

Looking at the schedule for next year I will probably go to some different tournaments. Being that we are going to be young again we will probably won’t go to the Brewer Tournament again. I am going to look at a different tournament to go to. It’s important that we compete early in the season. You don’t want to go play a 6A school early in the year, because I think it did play on our mentality a little bit. You hope that it becomes a positive and that you are in a game, like I said we were in every ball game, but hopefully our girls learned that it’s hard to overcome mistakes. It really is. Early in the year we were averaging 6-9 errors in a ball game. You can’t score enough runs. We went to the district meeting Wednesday. Lexie’s record was 1-6 but she had an ERA of 1.2, which was the best in the district. To every team in our district’s credit, every team had that good pitcher. It’s hard to tell that to Lexie. Lexie threw well, but this is a sport that takes eight girls behind you to make plays also.

The thing I learn as a coach, don’t always count your chickens before they are hatched. Going into the year, obviously we were very talented and one of the most valuable things I  think I have ever learned as a coach if talent doesn’t come together. Talent doesn’t matter. I think that is one of the things I want to focus on next year. They have to grow together. They need to become a family together. To some extent, for whatever reason, we didn’t grow together as a team. All of the girls cared about and loved each other, but there has to be that one girl that goes up to the plate and says, ‘I’m going to get the job done right here.’ Or that player that makes that diving grab that just lifts your team. Sometimes with girls it takes them getting away and going through those arguments and getting over all of that before they step on the field. That will be focus next year too.

KB: The biggest take-away I had from this team was is that they fight back. There was that one game here that was 7-1 and then they came back in the last inning. They came close it was just a matter of not putting yourself in such a hole that the tremendous effort didn’t go for nothing.

PI: Probably one of the highest compliments you can get as a team or a coach, is when we people talk about Graham, that is what they are going to say. It doesn’t matter their talent level. They are going to get after you and compete. I thought we did that well a lot of the times this year. That’s probably one of my biggest things. If you ask graduates that played for me, one thing that coach Irby would say is, I say fight. Fight for job, fight for your family, fight for your marriage. It is too easy to quit. It is too easy to lay down. I think we live in a society where it becomes a way of life. I want these girls to fight to the last out. That’s one thing, as you say that, I will remember that as one of the positives. For the most part, we got after it until the game was over. I never questioned their desire or their effort.

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