Kuykendall: It's about the experiences

She stands and watches from behind the third-base coach's box. Eyes focused on the batter. Hands firmly on hips. Shouting advice and encouragement after every pitch of the ball or swing of the bat.

Whack. The sound of a softball hitting the catcher's mitt is followed by the umpire's call. "Ball three."

"Thatta girl, Hannah," she yells from her sentry post. "Full count now. Anything close and let 'em go. If it's up by your hands let 'em go."

The next pitch is close and the batter let's 'em go. Hannah cracks an outside pitch to right field, scoring an RBI double for her team's first run. And, rounding second base, she looks toward third and smiles.

Looking back, from inside her box, Ashland High softball coach Cheri Kuykendall flashes two thumbs up and nods, smiling back. "There you go! There you go!"

This is what Kuykendall came to Ashland High to do. The first-year head coach wasn't hired to win championships, produce college-level players or revolutionize softball in the Rogue Valley. She's here to make sure the girls in her program get the most they can out of the game they play.

That is her charge.

She needs to build a competitive program to be sure, but to Kuykendall "the experiences each of these girls have in being a part of the program is what is most important."

To some that means winning games, and for others it's about learning how to turn a double play. For a few others still that means feeling like they are actually a part of the team, that their time isn't being wasted.

And peering out from the brim of her Ashland High visor she makes sure she never misses a chance to help one of her girls.

Road to Ashland

For Kuykendall, softball is a lifetime pursuit.

She played locally in high school, graduating from North Medford in 1991. The next year she got her first taste of coaching, helping out with the Tornado Tuffs — an Amateur Softball Association youth team — in 1992.

"Coaching has been part of the progression of the game for me," she says of the sport she still plays, as a member of a slow-pitch city-league team.

The game she first played in elementary school slowly became an important part of her life. And, as she played more and learned more, she realized people kept asking her for more advice.

The process, she says, "eventually developed into coaching."

But the process wasn't necessarily a straight-line to Ashland. In 2006, Kuykendall coached Gold Beach High and the stint with the Panthers ignited a passion to lead a high-school program.

But the timing wasn't right.

Kuykendall wanted "a few more children" before she settled into a coaching career. She and her husband took a few years to start a family, and in 2010 things started to unfold.

The Ashland job opened up, and with some spousal encouragement and family discussions, Kuykendall applied. After the interview process Kuykendall was hired and she got to work forming her program.

Building a program

Back on the local softball fields it is clear that everything is a work in progress.

In the bottom of the seventh-inning the Grizzlies stare down the barrel of a 7-1 disadvantage.

But, Kuykendall won't give up.

With a runner on first and second and only one out, Ashland has a real chance to put some runs on the scoreboard.

"Keep your head down," she tells the batter. "You gotta see it to hit it."

She pantomimes a hitting a baseball from the coach's box, swinging her hands, emphasizing her fixed-head position.

The next pitch comes and the batter hits a line drive to the Henley second baseman. The runner on second gets caught watching the ball and is suddenly stuck between bases.

The infielder quickly tags second base before catching the Ashland runner in a pickle.

And like that a scoring opportunity becomes an Ashland blunder, with zero runs scored. Although the chance to win is over the chance to improve is not, and Kuykendall jogs to the dugout, urging the girls. "Hustle up now. Hustle up."

'Like a team'

The game ends shortly after, the conclusion wrapped up well in advance. The 30 or so fans start to fold their lawn chairs and blankets, zipping up their jackets to defend against the sprinkle of rain.

An older woman in a Henley sweatshirt remarks at the improvement in the Grizzly squad from a year ago.

"They just seem to be having so much fun this year. They actually look like a team."

And that is what Kuykendall hopes for. That even in a 10-1 loss, spectators and players alike will see the development of a team that "respects and supports each other" and has learned to face adversity in "success and failure".

Though Kuykendall admits, "preferably with more success than failure."

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