Makayla Walsh didn’t set out to be the varsity softball head coach of the Bulldogs. She admits she was trying to find a job and her place in life after college.
Two years into her reign as the head coach and she has the squad in uncharted waters. The last time the Bulldogs played this late into the season was in 2013 when she was a junior on the team.
St. Anthony lost that game to second-ranked Cumberland 16-10, with the weather playing a role in it. Walsh batted third, going 1-for-3 with three RBI and a walk while also pitching 1/3 of an inning with a strikeout.
After graduating from St. Anthony in 2014, Walsh would continue playing softball at Parkland for two years and played one more year after transferring to the University of Illinois-Springfield before returning home shortly after that. She coached sporadically while giving lessons before becoming the Bulldogs assistant coach.
Part of the team’s success centers around her being relatable from her collegiate experience and proximity in age to her players.
“I was always looking in the banners in the high school,” freshman Maddie Kibler said. “I saw 2013 on the banner. I thought, ‘Oh, that 2013 team must’ve been really good.’ I remember going home and asking my dad about it, and my dad was like, ‘Oh yeah, Makayla was on that team.’”
Kibler added that she didn’t know she was on the team then but thought it was cool that she was.
“No offense, I didn’t think she graduated that early. I thought you graduated in 2005 or something,” Kibler said as her teammates laughed, realizing she just made her coach older.
“I didn’t know you were on that team,” Kibler said to Walsh. “That’s really cool because you were in the same position we are. You’ve been there and not that long ago too.”
Walsh didn’t tell her players because she admits to being humble.
“I think it came from the person I am,” Walsh said. “I’m not the type of person of ‘Look at what I did.’ I had great success when I played. I want to bring that with me on the coaching side. I was never bragging about that stuff. I moreso care about what they are doing now instead of the previous years.”
Kibler’s response to her coach’s sectional performance?
“That’s amazing,” she said. “I remember Makayla talking about that game and how upset they were because they were so close. Ever since then, I thought we could do this for Makayla because she couldn’t.”
Additionally, Kibler mentioned that she could relate to Makayla’s success.
“Makayla’s been in the exact same spot as we are,” Kibler said. “She had a great team. We have a great team. She’s brought what she’s learned for years to here. I feel like it’s helped us too. We can joke with her. She’s like our friend. She’s a best friend to us.”
Coaches tell players to finish, to make plays happen, yet the results of the sectional game Walsh played in wasn’t for her or her teammates to decide because of the weather. Now, she is at peace with the results.
“I don’t know. I think that’s always going to stick with me,” she said. “It’s just a part of me that you don’t get to finish it out. The postseason is a special time, especially for my girlfriends when we get together. We’ll talk about that. We’ve got a sour taste in our mouth about Cumberland still. We always will.”
Cumberland went on to lose in the state championship game, 5-4.
Now, as a coach, Walsh carries herself through practices matter-of-factly. She acts as one of the players, picking up balls hit during batting practice and raking the pitcher’s mound after as she tries to be an example.
Part of Walsh’s mindset is to help her players fulfill their dreams like she was able to.
“I was always that player that I knew what college coaches wanted. I was the first one to the dugout hustling. That’s still a part of me as a coach. I’m just trying to bring that culture here and say, ‘Hey, your coach is going to do this for you’ (so you can succeed). I think ultimately, I want to set a good example that they should be doing this too. What you practice is what you preach. I’m going to do whatever I can to get you to the next level of your success.”
Kibler added that the team trusts their coach.
“We all trust Mikayla with what she’s doing,” Kibler said. “She’s been through what we all dream of doing – which is to play in college. She’s played this game at a high level. So we know she knows what she’s doing.”
Walsh’s dad, Tim, had the luxury of coaching Makayla in 2013 and is now alongside her once again.
The elder Walsh sees the transformation from focusing on the negatives when Makayla was a player to reinforcing the positives now that she’s a coach.
“I think the toughest thing when growing up, and Maddie can attest to this, is when you hop in the car, what do your parents focus on? ‘The negative,’ he said, noting that when he coached Makayla, he was tougher on her in the car rides home than as a coach on the field.
“Now, when you drive home from games, we talk about what they did good and what they could have done better,” he said. “The transformation has been about looking at the positives moreso than the bad. It’s has been really cool to go from coaching her to coaching with her. It’s 10 times more fun.”
“They have nothing to lose tomorrow,” Walsh said. “We don’t have seniors. I want them to go all out. I think they know that too. I have everyone coming back next year.”
To help build team camaraderie, the head coach began team-building exercises to coalesce the squad into one and brought ideas that she liked from her time playing travel ball and collegiate ball.
She knew the little things would bring her team closer.
“I think it’s been the get-togethers for dinner, movie night a month ago,” Tim Walsh said. “It’s little things like that where you’re trying to bring 14 different personalities together in one cohesive bond to get to a state championship.”
Makayla said they needed something that would bring the myriad of personalities closer.
“I thought we needed to find something that number one brought fun, and number two made them compete,” she said. “I tell them that how you practice is how you play. It’s a way for them to compete and have fun.”
The ‘power chain’ was the first. Instituted when Makayla was an assistant under former varsity coach Crystal Tipton, who’s now leading the Teutopolis Wooden Shoes program, it gets handed to the next teammate who hits a home run.
“The power chain gets us going in the dugout,” Kibler said. “When Stacie (Vonderheide) hit her home run, we were all so happy for her. We love passing on the power chain. It’s one of my favorite things to do because we get excited.”
Walsh doesn’t remember how it started.
2019 St. Anthony graduate Liz Day, however, does.
“Makayla bought this chain my senior year a couple of games into the season,” she said. “She brought it to practice one day and said, ‘Hey, this is an incentive to go deep. Whoever hits a home run gets to wear this until someone else hits a home run.’ It was meant as a bragging rights thing but also to give us an incentive to hit the ball square and solid.”
Day believes she might have been the first to wear it.
“But I had to hand it right back over to Katie Kabbes in the same game,” she said. “ It was just a cool thing she did to try and spark inter-team competition and inspire good hitting form.”
With a ton of ideas stored in her mind, Walsh said that she gathered a lot from her various stops in the game.
“All my ideas come into one melting pot,” Walsh said. “I start up in travel ball or college ball and take all the positives. We do little underhand throws. For me, it’s the little things that have a huge impact on the game.
“I think it comes down to team chemistry,” Walsh said. “If you don’t have girls on the team that aren’t bought-in, what’s the point? It was weird for them. The freshmen didn’t know the juniors, and now they’re close with them. Coming over to watch the College World Series last night, having a team meal, that’s stuff I did in high school that I really enjoyed.”
She doesn’t bark or yell when the players make a mistake.
Instead, she pulls them aside and shows them the correct way.
“I think it really helps because when you have someone yelling at you, your emotions just go up,” Kibler said. “I don’t think it really helps in your course of play when you’re going up to hit. Especially when that’s all you have to think about is ‘Oh no, my coach is mad at us.’”