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Ratliff enters 20th year as IHS softball coach

When Isabella High School football assistant coach Mike Ratliff agreed to head up the new softball program, he didn’t foresee doing it for 20 years.

For starters, he’d never coached girls.

Along with anyone else in his position, he would use direct methods while training the boys during football practice. Chewing them out at a higher volume fired the players up in such an adrenaline-fueled sport.

As Ratliff made his transition to softball in 1990 when his team was entirely made up of young women, his methods changed.

“Girls are different to coach than boys,” Ratliff said. “I just found a different approach to coaching girls and the game itself.”

That different approach, which he continues to implement, has little to no effect on whether girls can get just as motivated as boys. Ratliff said a lack of drive has never been a problem for his players.

“They can get just as motivated and intense,” he said. “I almost wish they’d let some of the girls play some football.”

Ratliff continues to assist the IHS football team, but his primary focus and passion rests with the softball team, his 20-year undertaking that saw quite an evolution about halfway through.

When he first started, the game still stuck to its slow-pitch format. In 2000, it switched to fast-pitch, thus nearly creating a different game entirely.

“It’s a lot faster now than it was,” Ratliff said. “Throughout the county, it’s become a lot more competitive because of it. Starting out, it was more like just a social thing.”

He said young women weren’t playing as many sports at IHS, given there were few girls sports programs.

“There might have been a volleyball team in the 70s,” he said.

The fast-pitch also intrigued young men who wanted to try their hands at the sport, Ratliff said. Baseball players who wanted to show off by taking a little batting practice soon found a not-so-friendly difference in the styles.

“They like to get in the batter’s box and hit, but they don’t realize it’s not coming at them from 60 feet, but from 40 feet instead,” he said. “It’s a big difference. Some girls that played slow pitch back then wouldn’t play now if they saw today’s pitchers.”

Ratliff expects a productive season in 2010, especially with the leadership the team has.

“I’m looking at several players to really step up and take on roles I’ve been pushing them toward and getting them ready for,” he said. “We’re very excited about seeing these girls fill these roles vacated by seniors last year.”

Ratliff singled out seniors Raelyn Liveoak and Dezaray Lodge as well as junior Kaylynn Culp as players that must inspire their teammates to work hard throughout the season. He said the team has several younger girls the team will also depend on to succeed.

“We’re going to have experience in some areas, and in some we’re going to be lacking,” he said. “If your whole team was filled with seniors the previous year, you’ve got to rebuild completely about every third or fourth year. It’s pretty mixed up this year.”

At times, Ratliff thinks about stepping aside and letting someone else take the reins after such a long tenure as the softball coach.

But this job means something special to him. A father of three boys, the coach gets the feeling of having 16 of his own daughters.

“They’re very special to me,” he said. “I don’t know how it would be if I had my own girl. It’s just very special to coach these girls. I try and look after them like they are my daughters.”

Ratliff’s wife, Miriam, serves as the team’s assistant coach, and he said several of the players’ fathers also volunteer their services at games, which he said he appreciates every day.

“They help me out tremendously on a day-to-day basis with practice,” he said. “I appreciate the hard work they do every day to help things go on.”