BLOOMINGTON — After years of regional championship battles or just regular season rivalry games from opposite dugouts, Charleston’s Karen Karch and Mattoon’s Dave McDowell are to see each other again Sunday.
This time the retired coaches are both entering the Illinois Coaches Association Softball Hall of Fame.
“I was shocked actually,” Karch said. “It’s just such an honor to be included in this group. A couple of the others have beaten up on us over the years - Dave McDowell and (Mount Zion’s) Greg Blakey.”
True, Blakey’s Mount Zion team was the Apollo Conference power and McDowell’s Mattoon team often ousted Karch’s Lady Trojans in regionals but McDowell supports the Coles County company for Sunday’s inductions at Bloomington.
“I think as you look at both she and myself, it’s really a compliment to us,” McDowell said. “I know we worked hard competing against each other but when you have a lot of longevity, you don’t see much of that anymore. You don’t see many coaching 30 years. When you see the intervention of parent groups and booster clubs, they will sometimes – I hate to say interfere – but intervene and say it’s time to make a switch. I was able to coach my entire career saying if you want to replace me replace me but when I’m coaching this is how we’re going to do it.”
McDowell’s way worked for a 529-211 record in 28 years including a 2008 IHSA Class 3A state runner-up finish, five sectional championship teams, nine Big 12 Conference championships and 77 All-Big 12 Conference players after starting the Mattoon program in 1981.
He was the only Lady Green Wave softball coach until handing over the program to Nikki Trower in 2008 when retiring as a teacher and wrestling and softball coach.
McDowell is glad on Sunday to have his two long-time assistants – wife, Sue and George Reed – as well as his daughter Jennifer Nolte, who four years ago coached Mattoon Middle School to an IESA state title, riding with him to Bloomington.
“I think my first reaction is just that I wanted my assistants with me because this isn’t about me,” McDowell said. “I was surrounded not only by good coaches but good players and players understanding when sometimes even when they did the best they could they had to be replaced. Players were specialists like pinch-hitters who sometimes got the game-winning hit. Those are the decisions you make as coaches. Sometimes you look like a genius and sometimes you look like a crazy man or woman. People ask ‘what does (the Hall of Fame) mean. For me it means nothing. I am proud of what my teams and players have accomplished. I couldn’t have done it without my assistant coaches.”
McDowell didn’t always have those assistant coaches.
“I started out by myself,” he said. “We were not able to compete in the regionals that year. We started looking at the needs and necessities of what we needed. At one time I said ‘OK, I’ve either got to have an assistant coach or a pitching machine. A pitching machine would help immediately.’
“George was my first assistant followed by Sue. Not only was Jennifer a player at home but she then she helped when she was in college. I said ‘Look, I’m feeding you and paying your school; you can help us with softball.’ Not that that was a terrible thing. As you know she has gone on to coach the middle school.”
While Reed for years coached Mattoon’s junior varsity team, Sue McDowell was the first base coach for her husband’s team.
“She was my assistant in all things as well as my confidant in all things,” Dave McDowell said. “As of Nov. 26 of last year, we were married for 40 consecutive years. To each other. Even with a whole lot of years coaching together. She not only assisted me with softball but she was there with me in wrestling not as a coach but with stats and when we had cheerleaders for wrestling she was in charge of that. It was a great way and great place to raise a family. We believe there’s no better place to raise a family than on a softball field or a wrestling mat or the bleachers.”
Karch coached daughters Kelly and Kim among her many players while compiling a 435-424 record from 1980 through last year with regional championships in 1985, ’86 and ’94.
Over three decades Lady Trojans played at numerous fields in town before the construction of the Charleston High School Field that last spring was named Karen Karch Field.
“I have such fond feelings for my community and for them to honor me that way,” Karch said. “I just have strong feelings for the coaches and opponents. To be honored by them it’s almost beyond words for me.
“When I was writing my bio (once chosen for the Hall of Fame) I was thinking I could say how many times we’ve won the conference and regional and then think of how many more Dave McDowell and Greg Blakey had. You think of the honors that Casey-Westfield has earned over the years along with Mount Zion and Mattoon. This is really a hotbed for softball in Illinois.”
Her Hall of Fame bio does include the fact that her Charleston teams three times were cited by the IHSA for the Sport a Winning Attitude award.
“That’s important to me,” Karch said. “Then I think of all of the young ladies I run into that I coached. Some are doctors and nurses and teachers and moms. To think I’ve been a part of their lives, I’ve been honored.”
“In my early years I probably lacked in sportsmanship skills at times would be a nice way to put it. I let my temper get the best of me. Over the years I tried to live down that reputation so when Charleston was recognized I felt good about that.”
Now the coach who used to at times show displeasure with umpires is an umpire.
Veteran official Steve Hardwick encouraged and helped Karch get this start and an IHSA license.
Umpiring along with golf and babysitting grandchildren is part of the life now for Karch, who after the past school year retired from teaching and coaching.
Last spring she said she would be willing to continue coaching if no one in the school district was interested in the softball job but now is giving her support to Blain Mayhall, who has been hired as the second head softball coach in Charleston High School’s history.
“I think Blain is an energetic young man and willing to learn and has a young daughter coming up so he is going to dedicate the time needed for the program,” Karch said. “I’m excited about that.”
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