Phil Anastasia: Putting players first paid off
The "stopgap" took his team to the Group 4 final.
Sports sometimes can tap a coach on the shoulder.
Just as a reminder. Just as a refresher course on the reasons you make all those decisions, spend all that time, invest all that emotion.
That's kind of what happened this season to Eastern's Jamie McGroarty, the South Jersey softball coach of the year.
McGroarty knew this would be his final season with the Vikings. He knew he had been spreading himself too thin, what with his commitment to the Eastern girls' soccer program as well as his devotion to his family.
His children were getting older and more involved in sports. He was a husband and father first. He was a soccer coach second. Softball was becoming a distant third.
"These kids deserved someone who would be able to devote more time to this program, not just in the spring but really all through the year," McGroarty said.
This was a bit of a choppy season for Vikings, too. McGroarty made some tough decisions early in the year, creating some playing-time opportunities for younger players.
Ultimately, that paid off in a big way. Ultimately, that young talent and competitive atmosphere combined to make the Vikings the surprise team of the season.
But nobody knew that in late March and early April. Nobody knew May would be magic.
"I give Coach a lot of credit," Eastern senior third baseman Rachel Bernstein said. "He wanted everybody to have an opportunity, whether you were a freshman or whether you had been around for a while. Everybody had to earn their spot."
McGroarty said he knew by mid-season that he would resign after the last softball game. His daughter, Kelli, is 8. His son, Keegan, is 6. He wanted to be around more for their practices and games.
Plus, he always saw himself as a "stopgap" softball coach. This was his third season. He was more of a soccer guy, having coached that sport as head girls' coach at Eastern for the last seven seasons after spending 11 seasons as head girls' coach at Delsea.
So he made up his mind: The last game of the season would be his last game as a softball coach.
He just never expected to wait so long for the last game to arrive.
"We had no idea," Bernstein said of McGroarty's plan to resign. "He just kept telling us to take every game as it came. He never made us feel like he would be let down if we lost. He made it fun."
Eastern was 9-5 on the first day of May. The Vikings were a solid team, no doubt. But they sure didn't look like a South Jersey champion or a state finalist. They suffered an 11-1 loss to Cherokee in a May 6 game in which they surrendered eight runs in the fifth inning.
The Vikings got hot at the right time. After that loss to Cherokee, they won eight games in a row. They captured their first Olympic Conference American Division title since 2001. They kept going in the state tournament, beating Lenape and Williamstown and Washington Township and Shawnee to capture the program's first South Jersey title since 1986.
Then the No. 5 seed in the South Jersey tournament beat Central Jersey champion East Brunswick by a 7-1 score to make the Group 4 state finals, where the Vikings lost a 4-3 decision to Morris Knolls.
"[Assistant coach] Dave Dawson and I, we would just look at each other and laugh after every game," McGroarty said. "It was like, 'What's going on?' We were finding a way to win. We were getting a strikeout at the right time. The other team was hitting a line drive right at somebody, and we were getting a bloop single when we needed a hit."
Sports can be like that. Nothing is scripted. Nothing is to say a team can't find a formula and overcome the odds and exceed all expectations and win eight in a row and make it all the way to the state finals.
Jamie McGroarty knew that before this season, his last as a softball coach. It's one of the reasons he's so deeply involved in this business.
But sometimes it's nice to get a little reminder, especially at the strangest of times.