As she slowly makes her way across the outfield grass of Cosmopolitan Park’s Red Field, the expression on Courtney Haskell’s face says it all.
Moments earlier, her Hickman softball team lost its fifth straight game, an 8-1 romp at the hands of Parkway South, and as the coach walks towards the dozen teenage girls waiting for her in left field, she is noticeably upset.
She hangs her head, stuffs her hands in her pockets. The usual spark in her eye is gone, the pretty smile erased.
Eight years ago, Haskell couldn’t have imagined any of this: not the players’ faces, or the incessant disappointment that would set in once it became clear that this was not going to be a championship-caliber season.
She couldn’t have imagined the challenge of making these 15, 16, and 17-year old girls somehow believe that things would get better. She sometimes had trouble believing it herself.
A Labor of Love
The plaque honoring Haskell as one of the most successful athletes in Hickman High School history rests snugly on a long brick wall in the school’s foyer. It is a modest piece, about the size of a paperback book. The edges of the black and bronze metal have faded a bit over the years, but not much else about it has changed since it was placed there, days after Haskell’s induction into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996.
For four years, Haskell poured every ounce of her energy into the school’s athletic programs.
By the time she graduated in 1996, she had earned all-district honors in three sports (basketball, softball and track and field) and 11 varsity letters. She had played on a district softball championship team and finished all-state in the discus in track and field. She capped a four-year softball career, in which she played every inning of every varsity game, by becoming the first all-state player in Hickman’s history.
“The bottom line,” Doug Mirts, Hickman’s athletic director, said, “is that she was one of the best athletes to ever walk through these doors.”
That is why this season, Haskell’s second as Hickman’s head coach, has been so difficult to stomach. The Kewpies, after starting the season 0-5, are 6-17. They have been outscored by a combined score of 168-81, and have given up an average of over seven runs per game.
The girl who couldn’t lose is now a woman finding wins hard to come by.
“A lot of people think this is easy,” Haskell said before a recent afternoon practice. “A lot of people think ‘Well, why don’t you just do this’ or ‘Why don’t you just try this’. They don’t understand that that’s not how it works. They don’t understand how hard this really is.”
Nick Haskell understands. He has seen the way his wife has struggled this season. He has seen how hard she takes each loss; how she will come home after a bad game and spend hours dwelling on what went wrong. He was there, too, on Sept. 13, after an 11-1 loss to Jefferson City, when she returned home on the verge of tears.
“That one was pretty bad,” he said. “The bottom kind of fell out of the team after that game. That just wasn’t a good night.”
To clarify, it is not necessarily the losing record that hurts. It is not the calls to local newspapers to report the most recent loss, either. It is not filling out the team’s scorebook and finding that some players finished with only one at-bat. These things are hard, but not unbearable.
The truly hard part is what people don’t read about in the paper, what they don’t see from scanning a box score or watching a game. The unbearable part is day-after-day, week-after-week, trying to convince a group of teenage girls that just because they are losing, it doesn’t mean they are losers.
“Just to see the disappointment in their faces and the hurt in their eyes,” Haskell said. “They’re looking up at you like ‘Fix this, fix this please.’”
From the ground up
The Kewpies are, by any definition, inexperienced. One senior returns from last year’s 8-18 team. Two-thirds of the Kewpies starting lineup are freshmen and sophomores and many players are in their first year of competitive softball.
Haskell has also been forced to battle low confidence levels among players and a general decline in the number of girls playing softball. Hickman’s program, once overflowing with athletes, has had trouble finding 25 girls to make up the junior varsity and varsity teams in recent years.
It didn’t help when, in a game against Hannibal on Aug. 28 with the Kewpies holding a 2-1 lead (their first of the season), rain began to fall, ending the game in a tie.
Haskell doesn’t want to talk about any of that, though. As she sits here, on this warm afternoon at Cosmopolitan Park, she is not interested in making excuses for the team’s lackluster performance. Instead, she said that she takes the blame for the things that have gone wrong this season.
“It’s my responsibility to get the job done,” Haskell said. “And I have to do that by making these kids better.”
At 26, Haskell is the youngest head coach at Hickman. She admits that sometimes her inexperience can be a problem when dealing with things such as keeping kids motivated during tough stretches and working with players from diverse backgrounds.
Sometimes, she said, even the simplest tasks can seem daunting.
“It’s hard for me to look at these kids after a loss and say ‘How am I going to pick them up?’” Haskell said. “I’ve got to make sure I pick myself up before I can go pick them up.”
When asked how she is, in fact, able to keep her players’ spirits up during a season like this, she thinks for a moment before answering.
“By drilling it into their heads,” she said. “By telling them, over and over, that they are getting better, that they are showing improvement, regardless of what their peers or anyone else says.”
First, she had to realize it herself. Before she was named softball coach in May 2003, she said her goals centered primarily on winning.
Now, two years and 33 losses later, that mind-set is beginning to change.
“When you’re an athlete, it’s all about the wins and losses,” Haskell said. “Every kid in every high school defines success with wins and losses. Their friends do, their parents do, the community does. Everyone does.
“But as a coach, you realize things. It’s about teaching these kids, and making them better; it’s about being there for them. To make sure they take something away from the years they spent in the program, even if it has nothing to do with softball.”
She is also learning to find accomplishments in things she would have never considered as an athlete. These days, she is likely to get just as excited about a player’s first hit as she is about a win.
In the Jefferson City loss, the Kewpies were held hitless through four innings, before Jennifer Bieberly’s single broke up the Jays’ Courtney Wilkinson’s perfect game. Haskell focused on that in her postgame speech.
“You just always have to find a positive,” Haskell said. “Even if it’s not something most people would consider a positive. It’s new for me, but I think as a coach, you can always find something good that happened in a game.”
While she takes the losses hard, and said she always will, she has made a conscious effort to foster a positive atmosphere at practice; something many of her players appreciate.
“It’s hard for anybody to lose,” said shortstop Lindsey Rock, one of two seniors on the team. “But she’ll never give up on us. She’s always there, pushing us, trying to make us better. Especially now that we have our first win; that was a great feeling, and she encourages us to strive for that feeling every time we play.”
To be sure, the competitive fire that carried Haskell to such a successful high school career hasn’t wavered.
In the past few months, she has attended various coaching clinics. She routinely brings home books on coaching and, on occasion, asks Nick, who volunteers as an assistant baseball coach at Hickman, for help in planning practice.
“This is one of those moments when you ask yourself, ‘What can I do to improve?’” Haskell said. “And then you go out and do it.”
She has taken advantage of her connections in the coaching world as well, calling former coaches, including her parents, for advice whenever she is having trouble.
“We’ll get some calls from her during the season,” her father Jerry Diehl said, who spent 15 years as the wrestling coach at North Kansas City High School before moving to Columbia to work for the Missouri State High School Activities Association.
“She doesn’t really call for advice, but just to talk about her coaching experience. And I think talking about it helps her from a philosophical standpoint.”
One of her biggest pillars for support, though, has been Tonya Mirts, Hickman’s girls’ basketball coach and a close friend.
“She’s just such a caring individual,” Haskell said of her former coach and mentor. “She’s very knowledgeable, and she’s been doing this forever. She’s been helping me emotionally forever, too, so I figure, why stop now?”
Mirts said she has seen Haskell change. It is the same change she had to make a decade ago. After a standout high school and collegiate basketball career, Mirts became a head coach at a young age and found herself in a different world.
“It’s a huge transition,” Mirts said. “I think as an athlete you really see things in black and white and as a coach you see that there is this huge gray area that you never consider when you’re playing. And I think Courtney made that transition extremely fast.”
As this season winds down, it is unlikely that Hickman will challenge for the Class 4 District 10 title. They play today against Rock Bridge, but it is clear that Hickman will be hard-pressed.
Going into next season, though, things are beginning to look up.
A late-season surge, in which the team won four-of-five games by a combined score of 40-23 hinted at the potential of the team’s nucleus.
Only two players will graduate this spring, and the team’s starting pitcher, Stefani Worley, will be a senior with two years of varsity experience.
On this day, though, as the sun beats down on her tanned face, none of that matters. Players are beginning to arrive for practice and the coach smiles and greets each one of them, stopping occasionally to make a quick jab or ask a question, like a mother eager to hear about her childrens’ day.
It becomes apparent, in this moment, that this is indeed a woman who loves what she is doing.
“You know I am, I’m loving every minute of it,” she said, before catching herself.
“Well…” She pauses, perhaps reflecting back on everything that has happened in the past three months.
“Maybe not every minute. But most of the minutes.”