Every now and then there are coaches who come along and inspire their teams not just to achieve, but to wring more out of themselves than those players would think possible - both on and off the field. Three Columbia County men have recently earned distinction as such leaders, receiving overdue accolades for their efforts. We pay tribute to these men today.
It really says something about a girls softball coach when fathers of the players can offer such a glowing tribute to the coach who by nature is a father-figure.
Thats just what happened recently when the fathers of Riverside Middle School softball players, with a little help from John Eckenroths family, dusted off a granite plaque honoring Eckenroth and had it installed at the schools field.
Eckenroth, 58, has retired from coaching softball. But his players - and their parents - wont soon retire their admiration for the soft-spoken, humble man whose teams have never experienced a losing season.
More important than winning on the field, though, Eckenroth always made sure his girls excelled in school: Ive always told them their priorities should be home, church school and then softball, says Eckenroth, noting that at least 70 percent of his players have consistently made the honor roll.
Eckenroth, who teaches orthopedically impaired students, never even used the supplemental pay coaches receive; instead, the money went back into the softball program.
Coach Eckenroth has always put the welfare of his girls before anything else, says Ed Lake, whose daughter Jamie played for the man they call Coach E. He believes in team effort, and that was a great lesson for his players.
Newer residents of Columbia County will perhaps best remember Tom Whitfield for his single term as sheriff, serving as a transitional figure between the long tenure of the late Ed Tankersley and the new leadership of the late Otis Hensley.
But many not-so-old timers remember Harlems glory days when Whitfield was basketball coach at Harlem High School.
Now 76, Whitfield led his teams to a record of 214 wins and just 66 losses while serving as Harlem coach from 1955 to 1965. He also coached girls basketball for four years, leading those teams to a 59-20 record.
Whitfield was recently feted at Harlem High, where his former players plan to hang a plaque in their coachs honor. One of those players, Henrietta Jenkins, remembers a motivational speech Whitfield gave her before sending her into her first game: If youre going to wear that suit, youve got to play the game. Thats the best lesson Ive learned in life, Jenkins says.
Apply that lesson everywhere. Whitfield got it right. Last year, Columbia Countys school system rewrote its rules on naming facilities: Wouldnt this be a good time to name Harlems gym in honor of the schools best-ever basketball coach?
True, the mayor of Grovetown isnt a coach; if anything, Dennis Trudeau is a cheerleader.
The 78-year-old Trudeau tirelessly cheers for his city, helping make it not only Columbia Countys largest municipality, but also its fastest-growing area.
Much of the citys current population growth is driven by Grovetown Middle School. For 15 years, since becoming mayor, Trudeau campaigned for construction of the school. He got his wish this past year when the new school opened at the edge of the city.
But Trudeau didnt just cheer and then walk off the field. With support from City Council, Trudeau saw to it that athletes at the school - cheerleaders included - had new uniforms when it was time to play. When Grovetowns Patriots suited up last week for their first-ever game on their new field, their red, white and blue uniforms were courtesy of the city and mayor who have enthusiastically adopted them.
It was appropriate, then, that a true patriot like Trudeau - a bona fide World War II hero - would toss the coin to start the game.
Its worth cheering about that Trudeau also tossed his hat into the ring Tuesday for re-election to a fifth term. He certainly has earned retirement, but his love for Grovetown - and the citizens admiration for their leader - convinced him to re-enlist. Our community is better for it.
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