Coach and Me is a series of stories that reflect on the relationships between coaches and their children and the lessons learned through sports. It will also be a reflection of memories for Tony Chapman and his dad, who passed away July 6, 2021.
ANY DIAMOND, ANYWHERE — If you grew up when Coach did in the 1960s, it was hard to marry an “athlete” since, well, girls didn’t get much chance back then.
But, he found one while in school in Geneva. She played town team softball in Strang. Her dad was the coach. Now, mom makes trips to Kansas to watch her granddaughters play. For her, though, there was no Bill Smith Softball Complex. No place to showcase that hard work for the whole state to see.
Thankfully, that’s different now. As the NSAA celebrates the 30th State Softball Tournament that begins Wednesday, it’s been an annual event that is one of the great showcases of Title IX and expanded opportunities.
Coach always loved the “reward” of the state tournament — no matter the sport. It meant that your hard work wasn’t going unnoticed; that your sacrifice to train and be a good teammate was going to be showcased in front of fans who didn’t get to see you play during the season.
He’d love to see some of the coaches and their girls there this year. The Heard’s and unbeaten Gretna in Class A. The softball loving Moser’s from Central City. But, Coach always loved the underdog.
And, he’d have especially loved the journey to Hastings for the Milford Eagles. An improbable run. Some Mowinkel Magic, if you will.
Shelly Mowinkel took over the Milford softball program last fall from Tom McCall who started it all in 1999. He led the Eagles to 10 state tournament appearances; she was an assistant during McCall’s last four seasons.
Her husband, Brandon, is the principal in Milford — a place they have made home for 21 years. Shelly — a three-sport athlete while in high school at Osmond — even served a one-year stint as the head volleyball coach.
She played softball in the summer and loved her coach so much, she married his son. Bill Mowinkel was a long-time Nebraska public school administrator and educator. Now, he’s a big fan of Eagle softball.
“He coached me from 10U all the way up through high school,” Shelly says in her planning period the day before the state tournament.
On speaker phone with her is her teacher’s aide and standout shortstop, her daughter, Addi. “I think the one thing I have carried with me is that he says coaches today, must coach straight from the heart.”
They both admit last year’s 12-15 season was a learning experience. Addi broke her hand and missed the back half of the season. But, it taught them both valuable lessons in leadership — in Addi being a coach from the bench to others. The season ended with a 9-1 loss to David City Aquinas.
They had to learn how to separate mom and daughter from player and coach.
“We are almost exactly the same personalities,” the coach says, “but Addi is an extrovert and I am an introvert. She came to me a lot last year and the conversation had to start with, ‘I need to ask you a question as a mom.'”
But, slowly things came together.
“I just love the culture we have on our team,” Addi says of the belief that her mom has instilled in her teammates.
You can tell it’s also a little community driven, too. In the summer, the coach enjoys being “GameChanger” mom for her team. Three dads — Jason Maple, Ryan Stutzman and Travis Yeackley — coach the Milford girls in the summer, not something you see too often.
“It’s nice for me to be a mom in the summer and take a step back to enjoy watching them play,” Shelly said.
The Eagles carried an 18-6 record into sub-district play and earned a right to host. Their losses mostly to state tournament qualifiers: Yutan/Mead, Malcolm, Northwest, Seward. And, yes, Aquinas mid-way through the season.
When they played in the sub-district final the Monarchs again got the best of Milford, 8-4.
“Early in the year, we didn’t play our best softball against them,” Addi says. “We were really excited to play them at home and then we didn’t play too well again.”
Then, as if fate, the Eagles drew Aquinas one more time. In the 8-9 seed district final. A best two-of-three. In Milford. And, doggonit if the Monarchs didn’t sprint their way to a 7-1 lead in the first game until the Eagles last as bat.
With two on base, the coach had a message for her shortstop. “Get a single and let’s see if we can come alive.” Addi Mowinkel responded with a home run and the score shows Aquinas hung on for a 7-4 win.
But, in truth, they didn’t know what hit them.
Shelly Mowinkel lost her mom, Vicky Krienert, to cancer four years ago. She won’t venture to guess how many times she has talked to her in the last two softball seasons from the third base coaches box.
I can relate, only because I talk to Coach all the time, too. At a show choir invite, in the fairway at a cross country meet or when I call his out of bounds play in a meaningless youth basketball game.
Shelly cares about her kids, her players.
“You want them to succeed at what they are doing, but you also want them to succeed in life,” she says. “And when someone is struggling during a game or they need something good to happen, I ask mom if she can give them a little help.”
Vicky Kreinert might have saved her best for last Saturday.
Down 3-1 in the fourth inning of game two, Ayla Roth hit a 3-run home run. The Eagles didn’t trail the rest of the day.
Riley Springer was masterful for 14 straight innings. In game two, Camille Stauffer doubled in sophomore Izabelle Yeakley in the first and Mowinkel in the third. The Eagles earned their way to Hastings with 5-3 and 3-0 victories, sparking off a celebration when first basemen Katie Kontor squeezed a pop-up in foul territory.
Addi Mowinkel always had a plan for conference and district championships if she ever got so lucky. Head straight to the team dogpile and soak it all in. Except that’s not what happened. Something sent her right to mom.
“It’s the first place I looked,” she said, after Kontor caught the final out. “I am not sure I’ll ever have a hug like that again. Right then, she wasn’t my coach. She was my mom.”
Shelly continued, “It was an amazing moment. You know, sometimes we butt heads, but to share that moment, to feel all those hugs and everyone supporting us, that was pretty special. But, she also cleated me pretty good.”
It’s been a quick, hectic, whirlwind since Saturday. Special memory after special memory for Addi and her teammates. They had not yet qualified for state in any sport.
“To get to go up and decorate the school with our moms on Sunday was so fun,” she said. Yep, as Coach always said a “special reward for a great season.”
A bruised foot and all Shelly, Addi and the Eagles will head to Hastings on Wednesday morning. They face top-seeded, hometown Hastings St. Cecilia. On field one with the big scoreboard. A big task ahead.
But, you never know when there might be a little bit a of magic. The message will be simple.
“Don’t be nervous, just go out there and play,” the coach said. “Trust your skills. Trust your teammates. Play the sport you love.”
A simple message. One full of many life lessons. And, maybe, just a little bit of magic — Coach and Me.
Family is as important to us as it is to our friends at Bruce Furniture. Their partnership with us allows us to create unique content like Coach and Me.