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Some numbers more important than 300

May 11, 2010

Wabasso softball coach John VanLoy was never concerned about the personal numbers.

When VanLoy earned his 300th career win on May 4 against Springfield, the only numbers on his mind were much smaller. Like two - the number of wins his team got by sweeping the Tigers.

Or five - the number of consecutive games the Rabbits have won. Or nine - the number of girls on the field together, looking to win.

For VanLoy, it's about making the game of softball fun for wide-eyed seventh- and eighth-graders, all the way through their senior year of high school.

"Sure, it's a 300th win, but it's more about the talent I've had," VanLoy said.

Since starting as the Rabbits' head coach in 1995, VanLoy, 52, has been to state five times, including winning the Class A championship in 1999. The Rabbits also went to state in 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2009.

For VanLoy, the fun for coaching isn't about having that one great team, it's about building from the youth program and having a great team for two, three, four years.

"My greatest joy I have in the 16 years I've coached is watching seventh-graders come in scared to death and by the time they're seniors, they understand just how much fun the game can be," VanLoy said. "Every single year, you get freshmen, 7-8th graders in their first year. I tell them, 'This is how I want you to throw the ball.' By the time they're seniors, it's amazing how automatic they become."

Over the last two years, VanLoy has coached a bounty of talent. Last year, the Rabbits had four players on the Class A All-State team: Chantel Salfer and Ashley Fennern on the first team, Andrea Rohlik and Kayla Frank on the second team. In 2008, the trio of Fennern, Abby Carlson and Tori Altermatt were named first team All-State.

Success can be daunting, but VanLoy likes to lighten up the game.

"I think the thing I try to instill into the girls has to be fun, first and foremost," VanLoy said. "I like to have as much fun as they do out there. Play weird games and stuff in practice. ... We're serious when we cross the chalk. But it's still a game and that's when all the work needs to show.

"If you talk to all the girls starting in 1995, they'll tell you that they had a good time. I was serious, but yet, it was being serious about making them better."

Making the Rabbits better means making every decision on the field second nature. Everything needs to be automatic.

"Everything needs to be like a pass in basketball," VanLoy said. "When if you react to what you see, then you're successful. If you think and do, it's too late."

And that all comes with experience and confidence. The longer the young Rabbits are a part of VanLoy's plan, the easier the game becomes, and the easier the wins come.

With six seniors graduated from last year's squad and five freshmen coming in, the learning curve has steepened. VanLoy admitted there was some frustration.

"To go from six starting seniors to five freshmen, your whole coaching philosophy has to change, because I have to go back and get these girls and get them to that level," VanLoy said. "Last year's seniors knew it. We could do different things and didn't have to worry about the fundamentals."

After starting this season 3-5, including a three-game losing streak in the beginning of the year, Wabasso is playing at its best. The Rabbits are playing the way that's been expected from a VanLoy-led team.

"We have a shirt that says 'tradition,' " VanLoy said. " When you get into this varsity level, sure, I expect a lot of things and we have fun doing it."

Wabasso was scheduled to play its biggest game of the season on Monday, a Tomahawk Conference showdown at New Ulm Cathedral, the No. 1-ranked team in Class A. Like for the rest of the area teams, nature didn't cooperate, so the game is tentatively scheduled for Saturday. In the meantime, the Rabbits have a nonconference game today against Tracy-Milroy-Balaton in Tracy.

"Some people asked me about the game (Monday). I wasn't going to go to New Ulm to lose," VanLoy said. "It would have been interesting. New Ulm (Cathedral) and I have had some tremendous battles."

Earlier in the year, the Greyhounds beat the Rabbits 3-1 on April 15 in Wabasso. Since then, Wabasso has played like, well, Wabasso. Freshmen like Desi Kramer and Kimberly Frank have meshed with older players like Alonna Baune and Morgan Samyn.

"They're coming. Part of the whole thing is convincing them that they're good enough to compete," VanLoy said. "Even being that young, it doesn't matter. They're able to hit the ball because of what happens at practice. They're able to play better defense because of practice."

VanLoy is just as excited by the numbers showing up among the seventh- and eighth-graders. And as long as he's having fun building teams, VanLoy plans to remain at the helm for the Rabbits.

"As long as I'm having fun, I'll keep doing it, and right now it's a blast," VanLoy said. "It seems like every year, I think, 'I don't know about all this.' But they finally start to get it, usually close to the end of the year. They learn how to play and that's when it's a good thing.

"I see the reaction of their faces when I give them a tidbit (of advice). Their face lights up if it works, and you think, 'This is going to be all right.' "

A number like 300 is nothing without the countless players.



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