Weatherford stepping down after fifth final four appearance

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By Sean Arnold

Wayne Weatherford was doubting his decision again.

His Chiefland Lady Indians were about to play in their fourth straight state championship game in Vero Beach, and the atmosphere was buzzing as game time approached and Chiefland faithful populated the Historic Dodgertown park.

When Kearston Andrews, a former Chiefland player, part of Weatherford’s first state final four team in 2007, wished her former coach well, it reminded the longtime head man once again why he’s remained in coaching for 25 years.

Weatherford announced he was stepping aside at the conclusion of the season, making the title game his final one, at least until he makes his next possible comeback.

“I’ll never forget girls like this, that’s why it’s important to me,” Weatherford said of Andrews. “They show up. They love this.

“When I’m out here, I really don’t want to give it up,” he added.

But his health problems are telling him it’s time.

While not as urgent as when he was hospitalized with pancreatitis, forcing him to step aside for three years in 2009, Weatherford, who has also dealt with liver and kidney problems, is worn down by most afternoons after requiring an assortment of pills and shots to deal with his chronic pancreatitis. That’s led to him stepping back in his role the last few years, allowing assistant coaches Jimmy Anderson and Harland Stalvey and others to help lead a group of girls they’ve watched develop since tee ball.

“My heart’s still in it, but the health issues are still an issue, and right now I just want to take a break,” Weatherford said. “In a couple years, if they wanted me to come back, I probably would. But right now, I just want to take a break.”

“Coach (Weatherford) has been here 25 years, so he’s done all of this before us,” said Anderson, whose daughter Morgan won three state titles in the program. “It’s a program he started and we’re just capitalizing on it now. We’ve had a lot of good girls come to the program. We’ve had a good time.

“It’s been a good group of girls. There were four seniors last year, five of the six seniors this year, and two juniors that we’ve coached from 8 and under, that have been together, and that’s made a world of difference.”

“This is my fourth year I’ve worked with (Weatherford), and he’s great with the girls” said Stalvey, who has handled the pitching staff, including his daughter Lauren Stalvey, a two-time Florida Dairy Farmers 1A Player of the Year. “He keeps them calm, he keeps them relaxed, keeps them pumped up.

“He’s got so much knowledge of the game, he’s been doing it for so long. He relates so much to these girls.”

Weatherford got his start coaching tee ball, and first coached girls basketball with his wife Lena at the high school. Lena Weatherford, a former pitcher, won multiple championships in softball and basketball at Trenton as a player, including a pair of state championships in hoops in 1979 and 1980. She was the first coach to lead Chiefland girls’ basketball to a playoff berth.

“I didn’t know as much about basketball as she did,” admitted Wayne Weatherford, who played football and baseball in high school, but says he wasn’t very good at either.

The Weatherfords got into coaching bats when their daughter Megan Weatherford entered tee ball.

“My first team ever was Jim King Realty,” Weatherford recalled. “They knew I was involved with the girls’ high school basketball, so they gave me a team with nine girls and said, ‘You’re used to coaching girls.’

“The first year, we got beat pretty good. The second year, we beat everybody,” Weatherford added with a laugh.

“We just grew with her,” Lena said of Megan, “and then it kind of opened up where they needed a coach when she played in middle school, and they knew Wayne did well (in the youth league), and asked him to take it.

“It’s in his blood. I don’t know what he’s going to do. We’ve never known life away from the softball field.”

Weatherford took over a fledgling program in the 1990s and oversaw the ushering in of fastpitch softball.

As he looks back, he’s most proud of the top-notch softball field and facilities that have emerged since those early days, thanks to booster support and community involvement, led by people like Jim King.

“We went from nothing to this,” he said, pointing around to the batting cages and field. “They moved the field and got a booster club that stepped in to help us.”

While the recent four-straight final fours are fresh on everyone’s mind, Weatherford loves to reminisce about his first final four team, which consisted of a group of girls – including his daughter – he coached from tee ball. That team posted eye-popping records, including a 24-0 regular season mark, but had a tougher time in the state tournament because the school was slotted in at Class 3A and was forced to play private schools.

Weatherford beams with pride as he points out the team’s photo on the wall of the softball locker room.

“Those four years, we were phenomenal,” he said.

Weatherford’s daughter Megan was named the Florida Dairy Farmers Class 3A Player of the Year. The program went on to claim four more Dairy Farmers POYs – Taylore Fuller, Brittany Gilliam and Lauren Stalvey (twice) – as well as numerous other All-State and even All-American honors.

Before their final four run in high school, the girls of that 2007 club represented the state on multiple occasions in Babe Ruth ball from ages 8 to 12, appearing in four national tournaments as they traveled around to places like North Carolina and Tennessee, recalls Weatherford.

Through it all, Weatherford has served – and remains – as president of the Chiefland Area Athletic Association, which hosts the Babe Ruth League. Weatherford says players’ participation in travel ball is essential to building a winning program nowadays, something he says not enough of the program’s younger players are engaged in, but says Babe Ruth is a good place to build fundamentals and give girls a stepping-stone experience to more competitive brands of ball.

“Maybe this is going to give me an opportunity to start with young kids and build that program up,” Weatherford said of the prospect of working more closely with youth again. “I don’t want to leave. I love to get out there and show the basics. I’ve sat back this year and last year, not for any reason other than I don’t feel real good. I’m tired all the time. I have an enlarged liver, I’m still dealing with health issues.”

While coaching his daughter was his ultimate dream, Weatherford still had an itch for coaching high school after she graduated. When he returned to coaching in 2013, some of the materials were in place for a historic run that would eventually include three state titles and another finals appearance.

“I stayed with it after she left, because I wanted to make the program better,” he said. “I returned to try to build the program a little bit, tried to change things and get more interest from girls to hopefully join the program, and it seemed to work. We got some good girls that started playing travel ball, that started buying into that program, and it’s made a huge difference.”

Most of all, Weatherford wanted to make sure softball was fun for the girls to play.

“The girls were so receptive of my wife and I,” he said. “This was a different coaching style than what they were used to – not so demanding, to make the game more enjoyable. I want them to be a kid. I don’t want them to regret coming to practice.”

Weatherford says his rapport with Anderson and Stalvey has allowed the coaches to combine their inputs and adjust their collective coaching strategies on the fly, depending on what the day or moment calls for. The division of labor seemed to work.

“It’s been fun, especially learning new personalities and learning to deal with those,” former CMHS center fielder Lauren Parker said. “Coach Jimmy’s (Anderson) actually raised us – we’ve been playing with him since I was in tee ball. Coach Wayne, he’s really relaxed, but he’ll tell us to run, don’t get me wrong.”

“I love Coach Wayne to death,” former CMHS left fielder Samantha Rolfe said. “He’s hard sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I’m about to go to Webber (University), where the coach is ten-times harder.

“I’m glad he got to coach us for these four years. Coach Jimmy, Coach Harland, I grew up with them since I was yay tall. Coach Jimmy stuck me in the outfield and that’s where I’ve been since, so I appreciate them.”

“I like that (Coach Weatherford is) laid back with it,” former CMHS second baseman Sydney Parks confirmed. “He knows exactly when to give you discipline and when to let you be on your own, let you realize what you did.”

Former CMHS shortstop Takiya London agrees.

“I like Mr. Wayne as a coach,” she said. “He’s not pushy or really mean. He’s kind of laid back, but when it’s time to get serious, he knows what to say to all of us. And Mr. Jimmy’s been my coach since I’ve been playing, so he just knows me – he and Coach Harland.”

Whether it’s the character and personalities of the players or a sign of the program’s leadership, the immense accomplishments by the Lady Indians never steered them away from their habits of good sportsmanship.

“They worry about themselves, they don’t pick on that other team,” Weatherford said. “I think most of them have been in that situation before and know what it feels like. I remind them of that every day – I didn’t always win, and it’s embarrassing when you have to walk off that field because you got beat 20-0.”

Weatherford is stunned when he looks at the most recent crop of seniors, thinking back how quickly time has passed as he’s witnessed players like Emily Hallman and Sydney Parks grow from undersized youth players to four-time state finalists.

Lena Weatherford prefers the high school level to the youth for its higher level of competition.

“The youth are okay, but the competitiveness and the talent that you see (in high school) – some things they do are just amazing,” she said. “What I like to see is that drive that motivates them to go higher than they ever thought they could.

“I just love the sport,” she added. “I just love being a part of it, the atmosphere. I’m very competitive. It breaks my heart that my ninth-grade son is 6-foot-4, he can look Wayne in the eye, and he won’t play football. He just doesn’t like it.”