‘What about the parents?’
Honor of making ‘tournament team’ means commitment, sacrifice, parents and coaches
By KEVIN PEARCEY
Kenneth Carter, head coach of the Troy Dixie Ponytails, stood inside the fence and watched his team practice on Monday at the Sportsplex.
"We always hear about the parents whose children don’t make tournament team," Carter said. "What about the parents whose children do?"
Troy’s tournament teams, in both baseball and softball, have become a source of pride for the city and its recreation department. Troy teams have captured Dixie titles at the sub-district, district, state and world series level and while many parents long to have a child involved in something so big, Carter said they might think twice were they to live through his schedule.
He’s up early for his job with the state highway department and his nights are spent with the team, working through two-hour practices with his assistant coaches. That’s every day.
And once the tournaments actually start, there’s little rest for the weary as coaches, fans and players have to deal with the seemingly endless ordeal of constant travel, late night pit stops for food and the occasional setback, such as delayed games and rain cancellations.
Parents who take an active interest in watching their children perform have it no better, Carter said, pointing to a small group of people watching the practice from the stands.
"Look," he said. "All the parents are out here, too."
Billy Hixon is the head coach of the Troy Dixie Minor National team, which opened its tournament season on Friday in Georgiana. He knows the commitment involved when a child is selected to represent his city in either baseball or softball as does Cot Wallace, head coach of the Dixie Boys 14-year-old team.
"I overheard a parent the other day at practice say you pretty much have to be willing to give up two or three months of your life," Hixon said. "It’s a big commitment. Not for the kids. They’re just out there having a good time. But the parents are the ones that have to do the most."
That was the case last season for Hixon and the parents of over a dozen young boys who made the trip to the state tournament in Fairhope with the Troy Nationals. Troy successfully navigated the sub-district in Highland Home and then won the district tournament in Eufaula before heading to Mobile for state.
Buddy Starling’s son, Will, played on that team and is playing for Hixon again this year. Along with Will, Starling and his wife, Sherry, have two younger sons, Josh and Drew.
"If Josh and Drew are lucky enough to play on tournament teams, Sherry and I are going to have to do some heavy planning," laughs Starling. "But it’s all about priorities. If you go far enough, you have to think that you’re going to sacrifice a lot of family time and years from now some parents may look back and think whether or not it was worth it."
However, Starling said for him and Sherry, watching their son participate on a tournament team has been wonderful.
"Time goes so fast when they’re this age," he said. "I know we’re going to look back 20 years from now and know that it was definitely worth it."
Starling thinks many parents underestimate the amount of time and money involved when their sons and daughters are selected to play on a tournament team.
"I think so many little boys and their parents are intrigued with this idea of playing for a tournament team," he said. "It’s a wonderful, yet at the same time huge, commitment."
Hixon agreed. Most of the coaches have to work alongside the parents, pulling double duty as part-time fundraisers.
"We have had people donate money to help take away some of the expense from the players which has helped," said Hixon. "Donations help defer some of the cost. Now, if you make it to state, Dixie Baseball allows the coaches and the kids a meal expense and pays for the hotel. But in sub-districts and districts, you’re pretty much on your own."
Wallace has been coaching for over a decade and coached his first tournament team almost 12 years ago. He said the process coaches go through just to select a tournament team can be hard emotionally.
"In all honesty, the last three spots on this team could have been filled by at least 10 boys," said Wallace about the 14-year-old team. "There are five or six other boys that could have helped us, but we’re limited to only 13. Of course, your top pitchers and top hitters are going to go and then you just have to select the best players you think will help the team."
The Dixie Boys’ regular season ended on a Saturday and Wallace said the Troy 14’s started practice that Sunday. He, his assistant coaches, and the players then went non-stop until rain cancelled a sub-district tournament game against Luverne last weekend.
"I get off work around 5 p.m. and then I head to the park for practice," Wallace said. "I feel that the head coach should be the first one there. I’m usually one of the last ones to leave and by then it’s time to go to bed because I have to get up in the morning for work."
Wallace said when the players become teenagers, they, too, start making sacrifices to participate with the team.
"Nobody has missed one of our practices. We don’t allow them to," he said. "We had one boy give up his vacation to play on the team and another we had to go talk with his football coaches, because he was supposed to attend a football camp this summer."
The farther a team goes into the postseason, the more money it costs. While the players’ needs may be taken care of first, parents are left having to pay for gas, food and lodging for themselves. That’s not to mention the amount of vacation time they lose from work.
"I’m lucky," said Hixon. "I farm, so I’m my own boss. But I had one of my assistant coaches tell me last year that if we made it through state, he was done. He’d just taken too many days off from work and couldn’t take any more."
This year, like Carter and Wallace, Hixon has given up his evenings to work with the team. Practice sessions can run over three hours and parents are responsible for providing a meal after each.
"Heck, I haven’t been in bed before 11:30 p.m. in a long time," jokes Hixon.
Coaching can become more stressful as a team advances.
"It wears me out," said Wallace. "I spend most of my time worried about an upcoming game. Is my team prepared? What am I going to do if my pitcher starts struggling? There’s a lot of pressure on coaches around here because the people of Troy expect you to win. Then, anytime you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re second guessed and you were only trying to do what was best for the team. For the coaches its mentally and physically tough. For the players, I think, it’s more physically tough."
"I’m a little laid back," said Hixon. "But if I find myself getting upset about something, I have to watch it or I’ll tire myself. We treat it kind of serious. We tell the kids that as long as they do what we say, they’ll be fine. But it can get stressful."
And that’s not just on a baseball field. Last year, in Fairhope, a thunderstorm postponed the state tournament for a day.
"We had 13 9- and 10-year old boys in a hotel room and that got stressful real quick," Hixon said. "I think we ended up taking them to a movie just to get their minds on something."