Benton resident coaching more than sports at Ouachita Baptist

By Wayne Bryan Published December 15, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Mike McGhee, head coach of the women’s fast-pitch softball team at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, has been involved in sports since he was a young child. At OBU, he said that has the opportunity to teach his student-athletes about the game, and about life.

Of course, coach Mike McGhee wants his softball team to bring a national championship to Ouachita Baptist University, but he also said his job includes a lot more than finding and fielding a winning team.

“Along with coaching these players in softball, you end up looking after these girls,” McGhee said. “That is part of being at a smaller religious school. It’s the OBU way. I get to know and love each one of my players. I feel like they are all my daughters.”

In November, he announced the early signing of 10 new recruits who will come to OBU next fall and will play on the 2015 team. McGhee said they include some talented players who will make a difference in his efforts to turn the Lady Tigers around after a 20-30 season in 2013.

“These kids can play and are all strong academically,” he said. “God has blessed us with great talent and character to add to our team next year.”

Calling the player signings a blessing from God and saying he loves his players like daughters are just two of the ways the coach expresses his faith in his job. Sometimes, McGhee said, he is called on to do even more.

“I had a player come into my office one day and say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ and I told her some of the reasons why I believe there is a God,” he said. “She would come by every week, and we would talk about religion, and that gave me a lot of time to witness to her. In October, she pledged her life to Christ, and I’m glad for that. It is great to work for a Christian school.”

This past week was exam week at the school, and NCAA rules state that the coaches can have no sports-related contact with their players. As coach McGhee walked around Sully Anderson Field, where his Lady Tigers will play when softball season starts in February, one of the players was working out near the equipment shed. He would not even approach the player because of the rules against contact.

Junior Kayley Willingham was slamming softballs into a fence, one after another, as the outfielder from Arizona worked on her swing. She said she came to OBU in Arkadelphia from Tuscon after talking with coach McGhee.

“I wanted to go to school out of state and play softball, but I wanted to be at a Christian school,” Willingham said. “I was told about Ouachita, and I called and talked with the coach and then came here for a visit.”

She said she and her teammates like McGhee’s honesty and the atmosphere he creates for the team.

“He is a good coach who tells it straight, but in a way that is always supportive,” Willingham said. “We respect him because he respects us.”

McGhee’s approach to his players may come from being the father of a daughter. She certainly played a role in her father becoming a softball coach.

Raised in Sheridan, McGhee was an all-around athlete at Sheridan High School, playing baseball, football and basketball for the Yellowjackets.

“When I wasn’t playing baseball, I even threw the shot and discus, and ran the 200 and 400 for the track team,” McGhee said.

As a baseball player, McGhee was an outfielder when the sport returned to the high school during his junior year. That year, the Yellowjackets won the state championship and returned to the finals the next year but lost to Pine Bluff. Baseball was his favorite sport, he said. He started in Little League and played American Legion baseball while in high school.

“We had a championship game at Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, where the Arkansas Travelers played,” McGhee said, smiling. “My parents were just arriving at the game when I came to bat for the first time. I hit a home run out of the park, and my dad was telling everyone, ‘That’s my son.’ I struck out the next time at bat, and he stood and pointed to my mom and said, ‘That’s your son.’”

McGhee was a nose tackle for the football team and played the same position while attending the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

After school, he stayed active in athletics, playing in adult softball leagues. It was during a tournament that McGhee met the woman who would become his wife, Debbie, a Benton native. They were married in in 1984.

The couple moved to Benton, where McGhee worked with friends, first installing insulation and then hanging drywall in homes, and he continued to play softball.

“The wife of my best friend and my own wife asked me if I would start a fast-pitch softball team for girls in Benton,” McGhee said. “All there was for younger kids was slow pitch. When they got to high school, everything would be fast pitch, and they would not be ready.”

His daughter was also playing slow-pitch softball by then, and he wanted her to have fast-pitch experience, so he started a team in 1998.

“The first tournament we played in was in Louisiana, and we would play at least five games,” McGhee recalled. “The fathers kept asking me how many games we would win. I said I was wondering if we would get a hit. Those girls got two hits and three fouls. They had never seen pitches that fast.”

Under McGhee’s coaching, the team improved from its early days and, in three years, won a national championship tournament.

In the beginning it was hard to find teams to play fast-pitch games. When he complained to the United States Speciality Sports Association about the lack of fast-pitch teams in the region, he was named director of USSSA’s Arkansas fast-pitch softball program.

The program is still active in the state, and that exposure brought McGhee to the attention of school softball programs.

“One summer I signed an OBU player as an umpire for the league. When the softball program was started at Ouachita, she said, ‘I know this guy in Benton.’”

McGhee had been hired as the softball coach for North Little Rock High School, but he never coached a game or met the team.

“The next week, OBU called, and I had told them I was up for a college job, and so they let me go,” coach McGhee said.

He began as the assistant coach in 2002. After two years as assistant coach, Marissa Layfitte, the head coach who started the OBU softball program, returned to her home state of Texas. The college officials wanted McGhee to be the head coach, but he had not finished his degree.

“For two years, the head coach was Danny Prescott, the volleyball coach, and I ran the team while I finished my degree at OBU,” McGhee said. “I became head coach in 2006.”

In 2010, his team was 36-18 and had two All-American players and three players who set a school record of 13 home runs and hit around .400. After two losing seasons, the coach said, the new players are looking good.

“We are going to make some noise in 2014,” he said. “We will be even louder in 2015. When you get your older players excited about the younger players coming in, you know you have something.”

When students return from the holidays, McGhee will begin practice for the 2014 season that starts on the morning of Feb. 1 against Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.

He said he expects great things from his players, both on the field and in the classroom. He said he signed the new outstanding recruits only days after the player he had been talking with in the fall made her pledge of faith. The coach said he believes the two occurrences are linked.

“The future is bright for OBU softball,” the coach said.

The future he is talking about includes more than wins and losses on the scoreboard.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasoline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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