GREENFIELD — Jason Stewart had a gut feeling. The Greenfield-Central head coach couldn’t explain it at the time, but it was there from the first day of practice.
He knew his softball team was better than its 2014 record (16-12) and far more competitive than its 0-7 performance in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.
Stewart could see it in his players’ fearless, albeit young, eyes.
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With only one senior in second baseman Briana Whitaker, nine sophomores, two freshmen and six juniors on the roster, the coach foresaw big strides.
This spring, the Class 4A Cougars proved him right.
Greenfield-Central set a school record for wins in a single season at 27-4 and claimed a share of the HHC for the first time with a 5-2 mark.
The Cougars won their third sectional title in seven years and supplied Stewart with his best single-season win total in his 10-year tenure at the helm for his alma mater.
“There was never any fear with anyone we played against,” Stewart remarked. “They handled it a lot better than I thought they would. That’s just kids stepping up.”
Some would say coaching played a role as well. In Stewart’s career, he has amassed a 197-103 record. Counting this season, he’s steered the Cougars to six 19-plus win campaigns.
In 2010, his team won regional and he seized his first sectional championship in 2009 after taking over the program only three years prior.
Selected as the HHC coach of the year for his team’s remarkable performance this season, Stewart has secured yet another accolade.
As voted upon by the coaches and the Daily Reporter sports department, Steward has been named Hancock County’s 2015 Coach of the Year.
Recently, coach Stewart spoke with the Daily Reporter sports staff, discussing the 2015 season, his team’s success and the future ahead.
Q: What did it mean to you and the girls to set the school record for wins in a single season?
A: It was huge. I gave them a goal of 20 wins for the season. When you’re playing 28 games and against our schedule, that’s not an easy thing to do with a team this young. We just got on a roll and kept finding ways to win the close games. It was pretty special to do that.
Q: You started a freshman, five sophomores and three juniors in your lineup. Were you surprised by how quickly everything came together considering how young they were?
A: I knew there was a lot of potential there talent-wise, but it was a different world for some of these girls when they hit the varsity level for the first time. Last year, in the second part of the season, we started nine freshmen and sophomores. There’s probably not another 4A school in the state that would do something like that. You’re going to have that learning curve and frustration, finding out how to win games. What helped us out was we kept figuring out different ways to win and had different heroes at different times. A lot of it was on Darcie (Huber), but we had a lot of different people come through for us.
Q: Was sectional a realistic goal from the beginning? How did that goal change throughout the course of the season?
A: Where we were last year, I felt we had the potential to win it this year. We probably kind of went in as a dark horse early on, and then as the season wore, we probably became one of the favorites in that sectional. Also, the way you approach it and the way you look at it completely changed throughout the season. From having no pressure on us in the beginning of the season to how the expectations grew by tournament time, it was big for those girls to come through with all that pressure. They battled with all of that hanging over them.
Q: What was it like to finally capture the Hoosier Heritage Conference title this year?
A: They made it fun for me. I thought winning a sectional was realistic but winning a conference championship wasn’t. We went 0-7 in conference the previous year, and I gave the girls a goal of getting in the top three and see if we can compete next year for it. We got some key wins early and it worked out for us. It was the first time for us. It was the first time in our school history.
Q: With this year’s success, how much are you already thinking about 2016?
A: I’m watching (the Class 4A state finals) right now, and I see Center Grove playing. They lost to two teams all season. We beat both of those teams. You see that and you wish you were there and had that opportunity to play them and see what you can do. The expectation level is going to be pretty high for us next year. They have a lot to shoot for.
Q: How unforgettable is this season going to be for you?
A: It was special. I told the girls, this is the most fun I’ve had coaching in 10 years. Our 2010 team went further, but I’ve never had more fun coaching a group of girls. The way they grew as a team. The way they supported each other and believed and found ways to win games … maybe we shouldn’t have won at times, but they just kept finding ways. It was a great group of girls that tried to get better each day.
Jason Stewart’s Coaching Record
* 2009; 25-7
*# 2010; 26-8
* 2015; 27-4
* Sectional titles: 2009, 2010, 2015
# Regional titles: 2010