By VINCE PELUSO
Tom Henson has pretty much seen it all as a coach.
He led the Grand Valley Mustangs basketball team for 29 years before taking over the team’s football team for seven years and now serves as the high school’s athletic director. Over all those years in sports, a coach going to experience a lot of different things.
But even Henson has never experienced what happened to his Grand Valley junior girls softball team, which won the District 1 championship last week without playing a game.
“No, I’ve never won a tournament without playing a game,” he admitted.
Grand Valley went a perfect 16-0 in the regular season and when it came time for the tournament, all other teams opted not to take another crack at the squad, allowing it to win by default.
While happy to be moving on to state, which begins this Saturday in Engelwood, Henson said his team was disappointed it didn’t get the chance to earn a title it has been working for over the past four years.
“They were disappointed because this group has been together for the last four years quite a bit, they’ve been coming up through the leagues and they’ve been a very good team,” he said. “But they had a tough time beating Conneaut. They’d get to the District 1 championship and lose to Conneaut. We thought we had a great shot to beat them this year, the kids were excited and it came down to the end and a couple teams that were supposed to play us opted not to play because we’d been beating them all pretty handily this year.
“They were disappointed. They wanted to play the game and get that district championship banner at the game.”
Henson said the team’s cohesion over the past few years as well as the coaching of Kim Triskett and Paul Byler have made the difference.
“The kids have been together for four years and they’ve been working so hard,” he said. “The strength of the team is the pitchers Abby Takacs and Abby Triskett. Kim worked hard with the pitchers, she was a college pitcher. Paul Byler has been with them all four years and has helped coach those girls. They’ve worked very hard and are fundamentally sound.
“Especially with softball, and baseball too, but if you’ve got a dominant pitcher you need a defense behind that will make plays. The sticks have been solid, too. I think the difference is overall the teams we’ve played, their defenses weren’t as strong. You can have a nice pitcher but you’ve got to make plays.”
Grand Valley’s last game was on July 6th and it won’t play again until the 21st, but Henson said he isn’t concerned the layoff will result in any rust for his squad because of the way the team practices.
“We set up practices to go three days a week and what we’ve done is have our pitchers throw every day so we think we’ve set up practices to prepare our players for it,” he said. “We have a pretty good practice regimen, we go over a lot of defensive situations. To help with the batting Kim pitches to the kids so they see good pitching there.
“Every day we finish our practices with a game situation. We set up three different teams and rotate two teams in the field and make it a game situation. Our pitchers pitch. It’s all about game experience and I think it’s going well. We’ll see what happens when we get down there.”
No matter what happens at the tournament this weekend, Henson said his girls, and their parents, are looking forward to the experience.
“They’re very excited, I think the parents might be more excited, though,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience for these kids and it’s something they’ve been chasing, now they finally made it.”
Regardless of how Grand Valley won it’s district, Henson said that in no way diminishes the accomplishment of making it to state.
Henson knows how difficult that is, at any level, as he was an assistant coach on the 2012 Mustangs high school baseball team that made it to the final four.
“I think it’s absolutely phenomenal (reaching state),” he said. “I got to go through it with the baseball team with the boys who worked so hard and the experience I had and they had was great. These kids won’t understand it until they’re there and they see everything and the facilities.
“I hope they take away from it that the competition outside our district is very strong, but they still have the opportunity to compete with and beat those teams.”