It was March 10, and the Columbus High baseball team had just lost its third consecutive one-run game. Compounding the pressure of the losing streak was the fact that they were the first three games after the abrupt resignation of former coach Bobby Howard.
“When all of this happened, everyone was kind of shocked,” said interim coach Chad Mathis, who stepped into the enormous shoes vacated by Howard after a 3-0 start to the season. “My job was to regroup, and then we lost three games in a row by one run. Panic starts to set in, and you wonder who you are as a team.”
And then something interesting happened: The Blue Devils started winning again.
Eight times in a row from March 11 through April 3, they came out on top. And in a region filled with three or four other teams capable of winning a region championship, Columbus seized control and held it until it fell into a tie with Harris County on April 22.
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After the final region games this week, though, it was the Blue Devils who came out on top with the league title.
While the coaches insist that they were simply following a blue print that had driven this program to enormous success over the past three decades, the ship still needed a captain to keep it afloat, and a crew that trusted his leadership.
Mathis filled that role, and his staff of three coaches — Don McClintock, Robby Morgan and Jeff Boatner — continued the jobs they had done so well for Howard.
A new captain
While everyone had to play a part in refocusing the team after losing a coach that had been at the helm for 31 years, Mathis’ role was really the only one to change dramatically.
Whereas he had previously played the good cop to Howard’s bad cop, he had to step into the no-nonsense role of a head coach in the middle of the season. One day, he was the guy that players could go to with issues they couldn’t bring to Howard, and the next he was no longer that outlet.
“At the end of the day, though, I didn’t change who I was,” Mathis said. “I wanted them to feed off of my energy in the game, and I feel like they did that. I grabbed the reins, and they jumped on. They believed in the process and me, and I did the same.”
It started with the three coaches working alongside him, Mathis said. McClintock continued his job coaching infielders, Morgan outfielders and Boatner pitchers and catchers. They were the same positions they held under Howard.
Now, Mathis relied on their input and, more than that, their trust throughout the season.
“I was just the facilitator,” he said. “At the end of the day, the decisions were mine, but believe me, all three coaches were being asked. I couldn’t have done this without them.”
“Coach Howard gave us the autonomy to do what we needed to do,” Boatner said. “Each individual had their own identity, so when this happened, we knew as a staff what we needed to do. Obviously, it was a distraction, but as for the staff itself, we knew what we were all responsible for.”
It was a trust among four men who have been together for years. Mathis let them do their jobs, and in turn they trusted him to do his.
“I trust in their decisions,” Mathis said. “At the end of the day, it’s based on trust. When you spend that much time with them, you not only develop a friendship, but it’s a security blanket. You know they know what they’re doing.”
More important than his assistant coaches’ trust, perhaps, was earning that of the players.
Boatner said that was the biggest hurdle to clear for all the coaches during the quick transition process early in the season.
“It’s a big factor with kids,” he said. “If they don’t trust you, they won’t play for you.”
It would have been easy for players to lose that trust during the three-game losing streak immediately after Howard’s resignation. Instead, they exhibited a trait not normally reserved for 16-, 17-, or 18-year-olds:
They were patient.
“(Mathis) just told us that once he takes over, don’t give up on him,” said Cason Greathouse, who has been one of the driving forces on the mound for the Blue Devils. “He won’t let the ship sink. Just keep playing, and things would fall into place. It was different at first. We played three games in a row, so we didn’t get much practice in, but once we started practicing, things started to fall into place.”
“It was an adverse situation,” Boatner said. “And the kids had the option to dwell on it or to go to work. I hope it’s a life lesson for them.”
Still, the coaches insist that Howard’s fingerprints are all over this team’s success this season.
The blue print was drawn up before the season, and the jobs they do now are the ones given to them by Howard.
“At the end of the day, the way we approach practice and run practice, the small things we do, his fingerprints are still on it,” Mathis said. “When you’ve been with a guy for so long, there was no need for us to change. I owe all my success to him right now.”
“As far as the puzzle, that was established before the season,” Boatner said. “The foundation was already laid on what we wanted to do as a staff and what we wanted our identity to be. That never wavered.”
And so, Columbus will enter the postseason on Friday in a familiar position as a No. 1 seed. And despite Howard’s absence, the goals are still the same.
“I want to win a state championship,” Greathouse said.