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PAXTON — Brad Pickens was hired as Paxton-Buckley-Loda’s head softball coach at Wednesday’s PBL High School board meeting.
He replaces Lindsey Alred, who resigned in July for personal reasons and for whom Pickens has served as an assistant for PBL’s high school and junior high teams for, as he recalls, “five or six years.”
“I’m very excited about this opportunity,” Pickens said. “It was an opportunity that I did not think would not be presenting itself at this time. I was very excited after I found out that Lindsey was stepping down and the position was available.”
Pickens also served three years with Tremont’s softball program, working as the junior varsity head coach for two seasons before taking over as the head varsity softball coach in the spring of 2002 before leaving to work on getting his master’s degree and look for an elementary school teaching position.
He also wanted to spend time with his infant daughter, Sydney, and with his wife Sheila.
During his one year as head coach, Pickens said, he learned many nuances that spell the difference between being a head coach and being an assistant.
“I think part of (being a head coach) is being able to look both long-term and short-term — looking at putting as competitive team on the field as you can while still trying to develop the younger, less experienced,” Pickens said. “You’re trying to find a nice little balance between those two so that you get those upperclassmen who have had success and have put their time in. You don’t want to just throw away their seasons just because you’ve got some younger kids coming in. If you can figure out where you can slide them in, it’s going to give the girls the chance to be in the best possible position so that they can succeed.”
He said, despite the long hours and the required commitment, he missed coaching softball during his five-year absence.
“I miss the teaching of the game. I missed the competitiveness of the game,” Pickens said. “Yeah, there are long hours. Yeah, there are bumps along the way and additional commitments, but I missed it. It was such a large part of my life since I’ve gotten out of college. It was time for me to come back. I stepped down when my daughter was born so that I could spend the formative years with her, and then the opportunity presented itself to step back in, and I couldn’t be more excited.”
He moved to Paxton in 2003 and teaches fifth grade at Eastlawn Elementary School in the PBL school district, starting his PBL coaching stint as a volunteer assistant for Dwain Nance. In Pickens’ second year with Nance, the Panthers went 33-6 and won a sectional title.
PBL athletic director John Overstreet said he liked Pickens’ experience as a softball coach.
“He knows a lot about our program and a lot of knowledge and expertise about the sport,” Overstreet said. “Hopefully, he’ll teach the girls some things win or lose. We just want our girls to succeed and learn. I think we made a good hire and he’ll do a good job.”
The Panthers returned to its regional-championship winning form last year, finishing 24-9 with a second-place finish in the Sangamon Valley Conference and a sectional semifinal appearance behind a senior-laden squad that included three all-SVC first-team selections: pitcher Liz Satterlee, shortstop Brooke Allen and second baseman J.J. Valentine.
It was Alred’s second regional championship, as she also won a regional title in 2010.
“Alred had a fantastic team last year,” Pickens said. “They graduated a lot of talent at a lot of key positions, but I think we’re going to be in good shape with some of the girls that are showing some interest in pitching.”
Pitching will be key
Pickens said the biggest thing he learned from the other coaches was how to coach the pitchers.
“I was not as comfortable with that as, maybe, other areas within baseball and softball,” Pickens said. “Having grown up playing baseball, the fielding techniques and some of those strategies come a little bit more easily. The pitching is much different than what I was used to, but watching Alred work with the pitchers, I was able to pick up some key points on things to do. It makes me more confident and comfortable with that aspect of softball.”
Pickens said he has one goal for his pitching staff — throw strikes.
“I think we’ll be able to kind of fine-tune what they’re doing,” Pickens said. “If we can get them to consistently throw strikes, I think we’ll be in good shape. For me, that’s the most important thing. There’s very little that we can do to defend a walk. If they’re at least throwing strikes and putting the ball in play, then we can work on fielding and making throws and all the other parts of the game as well.”
Pickens’ plan is to develop a system where pitchers and catchers can be developed from the freshman level all the way up to their senior year.
“My desire would be to establish a pitcher and a catcher for every grade level,” Pickens said. “That way, you’re continuing to funnel in experienced pitchers through the system. Ideally, with the junior varsity team, some of those younger kids are getting their game experience at that lower skill level and not necessarily being thrown into the wolves with the varsity. Unfortunately, we may not have that option this year due to numbers and graduation.”
Fundamentals, aggressive play to be emphasized
Especially with what he expects to be a young team, Pickens said he wants his team to be fundamentally-sound.
“I believe in strong fundamentals,” Pickens said. “I want the girls to be able to field, throw and catch. The defense for us will be key. If we can do those little things, and I know it all sounds so cliché — get our pitchers to throw strikes, have our fielders field the ball and make the catch on the other end — but we’ll be fine. Especially if we end up having a younger team, we need to make sure that we’re doing the little things right.”
Pickens said he wants to combine a fundamentally-sound defense with what he calls a “selectively aggressive” approach at the plate.
“I want them to know what their strike zone is and be aggressive within that strike zone, whether it’s the first pitch or a two-strike count,” Pickens said. “I want them up there attacking, looking for ways to put the ball in play and put the pressure on the defense to field the ball, throw the ball and catch the ball.”
Don’t expect perfection
Pickens told his players to expect three things to happen this season, none of which would be considered a good outcome.
“I guarantee three things are going to happen this year: You’re going to strike out, you’re going to commit an error, and I’m going to get you thrown out trying to steal at some point,” Pickens said. “Those things are going to happen, so we just need to move on when they do.”
Despite the inevitable failures, Pickens said he wants his players to continue to play aggressively, particularly on the base pads.
“I want them to, whenever we can, be aggressive on the base pads. I like to push the issue on the base pads when we can,” Pickens said. “There will be times that I will probably run us out of innings. There will be innings where we’ll swing our way out of innings. There’ll be innings where we will field our way into longer innings. Part of that is just coaching high school. They’re not professionals. They’re great girls. Every one of them that I’ve met so far and worked with are terrific young women, and as long as they give me their very best effort, that’s all I can expect from them.”
One of the few returning bright sports for PBL will be senior catcher Paige Schwartz, whom Pickens said he will count upon for on-field leadership.
“Anytime that you can have a senior at that position, especially, that does a lot to settle the whole defense,” Pickens said. “She’s quite comfortable with running the show — calling all the different cuts, calling the pitches, things along those lines. She and I may talk about things here, but I generally like my catchers to run the game. They know what’s working for the pitcher. They know what’s breaking which way and what one they’re leaving in the middle of the plate. From my vantage point, I can try to guess and talk to them, but she’s got the best seat in the house.”
Amanda Ypya will also return for her senior year.
“She would definitely help solidify the infield,” Pickens said. “She did a nice job (last year) at first base defensively and brings a really big bat to the lineup as well. Hopefully, we’ll get a few more girls who have other commitments right now. Maybe they’re taking some time off from their winter sports commitments to kind of refresh a little bit and come back out in the spring and play a full season with us.”
Due to numerous seniors having graduated from last year’s team, Pickens said the numbers may be low — so low, in fact, that the program may not be able to field a junior varsity squad this year.
“Hopefully, we’ll have large enough numbers that we can actually field a JV team, but I don’t think that will necessarily be the case this year,” Pickens said. “If that means we’ll go with one team, then we’ll go with one team and give some of those younger girls some upper-level experience along the way.”
Short offseason? No problem
Due to his short-notice hiring, Pickens said open gyms have been cut short this offseason.
“Unfortunately, we’ve only had one open gym because of my hiring being so late in the offseason,” Pickens said. “We’ll have another one over this weekend where the kids can come in and throw and hit and just kind of get loosened up. I’m hoping for as many girls who are interested in coming out to come out and participate with us. If we don’t have a lot of juniors or seniors that choose to participate this year for whatever reason, the underclassmen will have to see that as an opportunity and step up and take those jobs. It’s a double-edged sword. I’d love to have an upperclassmen-laden team. It would have made the transition for me coming in much easier, but with the girls that have already shown up for open gym and the excitement and their enthusiasm for getting back into the season, I think we’re going to be in good shape.”
Despite the lack of open-gym time, Pickens said this short offseason, hopefully, will not cause too many more problems than those that would occur during a normal offseason.
“I think it just presents a different challenge,” Pickens said. “Every offseason presents the challenges of getting your stuff together, figuring out what you need to replace, starting to get some interest. That becomes easier with a longer offseason. Having a shorter offseason is just going to add a new dimension to it – nothing we can’t overcome. I’m expecting that by the time we open the season Feb. 25 (with practice), there won’t be any noticeable differences between what this offseason would look like compared to future offseasons.”
The passing of the torch
Alred said PBL is getting a smart individual in Pickens who, in turn, is inheriting a great program.
“He is taking over a great group of girls, and I wish them nothing but the best,” Alred said. “Pickens knows a lot about softball, and he has a lot to offer to the program.”
Of course, one would not be wise to expect Alred to stay completely distant from her former team.
“PBL softball has always had a special place in my heart, and it will always be in my heart,” Alred said. “I’m going to support them in any way that I can.”