BUCKHANNON -- 1000!
That number alone speaks volumes.
West Virginia Wesleyan's veteran head softball coach Steve Warner hit this magical number last month, and did so on the grandest of stages. Like Derek Jeter going yard for his 3000th hit, Warner captured win number 1000 Division II the College World Series.
After Wesleyan's dramatic 1-0 win over West Florida for the historic milestone, the Lady Bobcats closed the season 51-10 and ranked third in the nation. Warner's career mark now stands at 1000-351-1. With 24 seasons completed at the helm of the WVWC program, he has averaged an astounding 41.6 wins per season over his career.
For Warner, the fact that it happened at the CWS did make it even more special.
"That whole experience was great for our school, our program, and our community," Warner said. "We had come so close so many times, and to actually get there and perform well was very special. I can't stop smiling, and I don't think my feet have touched the ground yet."
Several former Bobcats were in attendance at the World Series in Salem, Virginia, plus a large following of WVWC friends and family. Warner gave the game ball from number 1000 to his dad.
Another aspect of the softball success, has been the fact that Warner is a hometown product. He is a 1986 graduate of Buckhannon-Upshur and a 1990 WVWC graduate. He still resides in Hodgesville with his wife Terry and his two boys, Thomas and Jonathan.
"I have always been thankful to Wesleyan for giving me this opportunity," Warner said. "It has been nice to coach throughout my career around my family and friends...I have never taken that for granted. So many college coaches do not get that opportunity, but I have...and for that I am extremely thankful."
Along the way, Warner has collected a lot of WVIAC/MEC accolades. He has been named Coach of the Year 18 times, has produced 18 regular season titles and 17 league tournament titles. There have been 17 trips to the NCAA Regionals, and five trips to the Super Regionals. On his watch, WVWC has produced 18 Pitchers of the Year and 15 Players of the Year.
Wesleyan's team that finally broke through that wall to make it to the World Series was a special unit. They hit .322 as a team, including three players that blistered opponents for an average over .350; Tori Pogue (.421), Olivia Gore (.398), and Morgan Bruce (.355). The pitching staff posted a sterling 1.48 ERA as a team, with the combo of Hannah Vet (28-4) and Sayaka Foley (18-5) producing 46 of the 51 winning decisions. The pair collected 275 strikeouts in 352 total innings. The roster also included a past D-II All-American in second basemen Brooklyn Waddell who hit a strong .314 this year.
The regular lineup also included three other players that hit over .300; Krista Waggoner (.348), Sara Scoone (.318) and Ailyn Gutierrez (.316). Scoone was also pivotal in handling the pitching staff from her position as the team's catcher. The speedy Pogue was also a key defensively in center field. Wesleyan produced a solid .966 team fielding percentage.
"This team taught me a lot," Warner conceded. "They always had this air of confidence no matter what the situation. In the end, I think that is why this was the team that was able to advance past the Regionals...they just never seemed to get rattled."
For Vet, it was special for her as she pitched the game to get Warner his 900th win and then was in the circle again for his 1000th win.
"A key aspect that has made Coach so successful is how genuinely he cares about each and every one of his players," Vet remarked. "He has the nick name, "Big Daddy," and that is so fitting for him because he always has his players best interest in mind, from academics to making sure we are getting enough sleep at night. He stresses about stuff that any parent would over their own kids but he does that for us, his players, and there is nothing more respectable than a coach truly and deeply caring for his team."
Warner was hired by former Wesleyan Athletic Director Dr. George Klebez back in 1993. For Warner's first 20 years, WVWC competed in the old WVIAC, and for the last four years, in the new Mountain East Conference. Over his two decades, he often battled with local rival Alderson-Broaddus, a team coached by another legend, Coach J.D. Long. Now an administrator at A-B, Long accumulated over 600 wins as a head coach himself.
"It was a great rivalry, and Steve and I were able to remain good friends away from the softball field. It was a pleasure to compete against him, and I am proud to be associated with him as a contemporary," Long said. "I will say this...whenever you played Wesleyan, you always knew you were going to be facing a team that mentally tough...especially at the plate. No matter what the situation, Steve's players would never lose that hard mental edge."
Long elaborated on several other aspects of the storied rivalry, and the toughness of the Bobcats.
"First off, he is a big-time recruiter. He puts in the time, and is very aggressive with going after strong talent," Long said. "And facing these athletes, it was very hard to prepare for them. I came to realize that when we were facing a Steve Warner-coached team, you had to expect the unexpected. He made some gutsy calls in some tight situations that were unconventional at times, but he has that kind of confidence in his players to execute when they are called upon."
Klebez served as Wesleyan's AD for over 20 years, including Warner's first 16 years as head coach. Klebez, a WVWC Hall of Famer, was able to witness the rise of the program.
"You can reference the 1000 wins," Klebez said. "Steve believes in his players, and they believe in him. With that combination, success is sure to follow."
Along the way, Warner also produced some Hall of Famers. Angela "Tex" Demel '98, was a dominant and overpowering pitcher, posting an 85-12 career record with 43 shutouts.
Demel made the trip to Salem, Va. to watch Warner win 1000.
"We have remained close over the years, and it was important to me to be there when the team was in the World Series last month," Demel said. "It was also important to me to be there for him and for his 1000th win. He was an inspiration and remains an inspiration to me for the time and effort he puts into the program and into seeing his athletes be the best they can be in all aspects of life. "
Adrienne Mertz '02 also was dominant, getting named league Pitcher of the Year all four years and going 61-26.
Nancy Stonestreet '98 was an electric five-tool player at shortstop. She closed her career with a .435 average, 27 home runs, 105 stolen bases, and was a human highlight reel on defense. She remains a Warner disciple and a true Bobcat.
"I was following all of their regional and World Series games. It was very exciting to this success with the program," Stonestreet said. "We have had so many great players over the years, but Coach (Warner) has been the constant over the last 20-plus years."
"He puts in so much time throughout the year, and is totally invested in the program," Stonestreet said. "I am proud to have been a part of that program."
For Warner, the success has been a major boon to getting that next solid recruit. Over the years, the recruiting base has gone from the local states to a true nationwide casting. The Hall of Famer Demel was from Texas, and the current roster includes Pogue (Arizona), Vet (Florida), Foley (Arizona), Waggoner (Oklahoma), Scoone (Florida), Gutierrez (Arizona), and Jessica Rodriguez (Arizona).
"Success breeds success, and we have been able to use that over the years to keep getting solid players," Warner said. "Kids want to be a part of a winner, and they like to have the opportunity to compete nationally. And we never have to sell Wesleyan's academics."
Warner acknowledges that he is not the same coach that he was in 1993, but has evolved in several areas. Through it all, he has continued to win.
"My coaching style and basic philosophy is still the same, but I have had to adapt in many ways to today's athlete," Warner said. "I think I am able to relax more, and be much more patient in a lot of situations. This year's team certainly taught me a lot about trusting them and trusting the process."
So what does the future hold for the man with 1000 wins?
"If I can keep my health, and God willing...I think I could go another 10 years," Warner said. "Whenever I am done, I still will want to be around the game. I can see myself spending some time watching some of my former athletes that have chosen to go into the coaching ranks...I also plan to spend a lot of time trout fishing when my coach days are done."
At an average over 41 wins per year, ten more years would put him over 1400. The current D-II record is 1249, held by Wayne State's Gary Bryce who is has been the head coach there since 1982.
"We lost some good kids, but we have some solid kids coming back...plus I still enjoy recruiting good athletes," Warner said. "There are still some big goals ahead for our program."
That fishing pole is going to have to wait.
Written by Assistant SID Jesse Skiles