New softball coach Wally King instilling winning culture at Ferris State

GOOD START: Ferris State University’s softball team goes through hitting drills prior to its games against Grand Valley State University on Tuesday. The Bulldogs are 21-11 this season. (Pioneer photo/Ryan Zuke)

GOOD START: Ferris State University’s softball team goes through hitting drills prior to its games against Grand Valley State University on Tuesday. The Bulldogs are 21-11 this season. (Pioneer photo/Ryan Zuke)

BIG RAPIDS — Ferris State University’s softball team was searching for a new identity after a 29-56 record over the past two seasons.

New head coach Wally King made it clear from day one that the culture of the program would change.

Through 32 games this season, the transformation has been evident.

The record is the most observable indicator. At 21-11, the Bulldogs already have surpassed last year’s win total (16-36). They were picked to finish 11th in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Softball Preseason Coaches’ Poll, but the team rocketed out to a 6-0 start in conference play before dropping a pair of one-run, extra-inning decisions to Grand Valley State University on Tuesday.

KING

KING

“It was a losing culture,” King said of program when he first arrived. “When I came in, (assistant) coach (Jasmine Watson) and I sat in the stands and watched an intrasquad game. My first comment was, ‘There is no excuse for you guys to only win 16 games last year. I see a ton more potential. You guys are way better than that and we are going to go out and change that right now.’ That was the first day. From that day on, they have just continued to get after it, continued to believe in themselves.”

The coaching style has been quite an adjustment for the players. King is direct and holds them accountable, but there also is a trust and respect factor players have for him that was missing the past couple of years.

King also has a deep coaching background. He was the associate head coach at Syracuse University from 2008-13, helping guide the team to four straight 30-win seasons.

In 2011, the Orange went 45-13 and repeated as Big East champions. They qualified for the NCAA tournament and advanced to a regional final.

Since then, he was the Diamonds Sports Training Academy director of coach and player development in Grand Rapids before being named the Bulldogs’ coach in July.

King also had coaching stints at Furman University, Trine University, Bowling Green State University and Grand Rapids Community College.

“How he coaches is super helpful, because when he tells you to do something, he explains why so you understand more,” said junior infielder Bailey Darwin, who leads the team with a .402 batting average. “In the past, we were just told what to do and weren’t really sure how to do it. Now he gives us reasoning and it makes sense. That definitely benefits us.”

Sophomore starting catcher Emily Reed added: “Our coach has made a huge difference. He really went back to the basics and has taught us a lot. I feel like he has confidence in me and the team has confidence in me, and it makes me more confident as a player.”

King said that confidence has been a key ingredient in the team’s turnaround. The Bulldogs are outscoring their opponents 173-116 and boast a .299 team batting average — a major bump up from .249 last season. They have belted 21 home runs — just three fewer than their total last year, and their ERA is better than two runs lower than last season.

“The kids believe in themselves now and that is huge,” King said. “Part of that comes from success and part comes from hard work. They’ve worked really, really hard. It has taken a lot of effort from them because there has been a lot of tweaks to things they’ve done in the past, whether it be running, throwing or hitting.”

Starting new

After a quick indoor practice prior to their games on Tuesday, several players acknowledged a leading factor in the team’s poor record the previous two seasons was a lack of team chemistry.

That was one of the first things King addressed when taking over.

“When I came in, I told them I do not tolerate drama and there will be no drama,” he said. “If you are a part of drama, I will have a discussion with you, and if it continues, you’re out. Nothing will tear apart a squad quicker than that. I talked about some specifics. There won’t be any eye-rolling, there won’t be rolling your head back or pouting.”

The core of the team still is intact, with 13 returners from last season, but FSU has received key contributions from several newcomers.

Two of them are sophomore outfielder Alexx Astorga and senior second baseman Michelle Tononi.

Astorga transferred from Division I University of Detroit Mercy and leads the team with 27 RBIs and is tied for the team-lead with four home runs.

Tononi was on the 2013-14 Bulldogs squad but opted not to play last season. When the coaching change was announced, she expressed interest in returning to the team and has provided a big boost at the top of the lineup.

Tononi is third on the team with 31 hits and is tied for second with seven doubles.

“They, along with everybody, have been huge,” King said. “Their numbers are good and both are competitors and are doing a lot of really good things for us. But the only way that works is if everybody buys in.”

Returning home

King has gleaned a lot from each coaching stop in his career, but this season especially has been rewarding.

He went to Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central High School, and now lives in nearby Hudsonville close to his family.

“I would say coaching is coaching no matter what level I’ve been at,” King said. “It’s my passion. But this team has embraced the changes and it is just so fun to be around this group of girls now. I enjoy coming to practice every day.

“Another bonus is I feel a little more balanced with my life, too. Being able to be back home with my family. My daughter plays three sports, so I can go watch her play. I was able to make it to the Breslin Center to watch her in the state (basketball) semifinals. So the balance between family, the team and Ferris has been great.”

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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