INA, Ill. (March 2, 2018) - It has been a wet last week of February. Rend Lake College Softball Coach Dave Ellingsworth wasn’t even sure if the Warriors were going to be able to play their scheduled home opener against Parkland College. But, the tarp had held; the field was dry enough, and the sun was out.
For the coach, it was the start of his 25th season at the helm. For his team, it was the start of their season, a beginning of what will hopefully turn into a successful spring campaign.
There was one slight wrinkle. After clutching a 1-0 win in the first game of the double header, the team fought off a comeback in game two, notching a 5-2 victory to get the season started on the right foot. It just so happened to be Ellingsworth’s 900th career victory.
“You know, this is just a number. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s nice. But, I just want to win the next one. What it really means is that I’ve been doing this a long time and we’ve played a lot of games,” Ellingsworth said with a chuckle.
“I’ve honestly never been too record-conscious unless it came to my players.”
“Our program has been blessed with some really good players down through the years. You can be a great college coach, but if you have average talent, you’re going to get beat. But, like in my case, you can be an average coach with great talent and have a lot of success. I didn’t win one of those games. The players win the games. They just allowed me to be there when they won.”
He took a glance over on his office wall which displayed the names of all the All-Americans, both academic and athletic, that he has had the pleasure of coaching over the years.
Ellingsworth cited a women’s D1 basketball coach: “Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s something that has stuck with him.
He recalled his start in coaching, first getting roped into coaching his son’s youth baseball team. When his daughter took to the softball diamond, Ellingsworth went with her. He carries those lessons from coaching his children into practice each and every day. He understood that he had to care about his players.
“When these players are the most precious thing in someone’s life, that’s a heck of a responsibility. So, when those kids are here, they are my kids. They don’t always like that, but it’s my responsibility to take care of them and teach them,” he expressed.
Luckily for Ellingsworth, he said he benefits from a lot of good players locally. And, given his longevity at the position, he has created a solid network of volunteer scouts and tipsters that help him identify good fits for the Softball Warriors.
Just looking at the roster he’s assembled for next year’s season looks to continue the trend.
“Goreville, Massac County, Marion, Anna-Jonesboro, Steeleville and Benton,” he intoned, reading off a list of players committed for the fall 2018 season.
While the locations have remained largely the same, the players have sure changed in his two decades at the helm.
“When we finished 9th in the nation in 1996, every player but one lived 45 minutes or less from campus.”
The evolution of the travel ball system has many softball players playing younger and longer with more coaching than they’ve ever received before.
“Now, we have players coming in who have personal batting instructors or pitching coaches. The talent isn’t necessarily any different, but they are so much more experienced when they get to us now.”
Another major change comes at the hands of other institutions. Ellingsworth said talent is scouted out much quicker now and more institutions are interested in female athletics than they once were.
“Now, you go to recruit a kid and she’s got five other schools looking at her. That’s been a really big change. But, we’re lucky because Rend Lake College has a lot of appeal, so we can still convince good local players to come here.”
The coach says he’s proud to be part of a nationally recognized school and that makes it much easier to talk to prospects about coming to Ina.
Having been in higher education since 1971, Ellingsworth says the best move he ever made was coming back to RLC to teach. And while he’s been retired from teaching for 15 years, it was that love of the classroom that eventually led to all his time with Warrior Softball.
Ellingsworth credits Jim “Hummer” Waugh into getting him on the RLC diamond for the first time. Waugh marched up to the Industrial Technology Professor and declared him assistant coach of the softball team. Looking back now, Ellingsworth just chuckles.
“I hadn’t even coached high school softball. I had just done travel ball with my daughter, and it’s nothing like the travel ball we know today. It was just around here in Southern Illinois.”
Ellingsworth officially took of the head coaching position in the fall of 1993 and has been there ever since. But, he credits his tutelage under Waugh as one of the cornerstones of the program’s continued success.
When asked if he would have guessed he’d still be leading the team 25 years and 900 wins later back in 1993 …
“Shoot no!” he said with a smile.
One of the other guiding forces in Ellingsworth’s coaching mentality is his time during the Vietnam War.
The decorated combat pilot turned instructor turned softball coach said that when he made a mistake at 23, it cost someone their life. Now, when he makes a mistake it might cost the team a run.
“It really puts things in perspective,” he said shaking his head.
“The important thing to me is remembering that I’m a teacher. To me, coaching is teaching. What are you teaching? I mean, we are all competitors and want to win, but we are teaching life skills. Team sports are life on fast forward with the volume turned up. It just amplifies all the same skills you need to be successful in life; preparedness, working with people, working for people, putting in the effort.”
“You watch what some of these high-profile college coaches now, and the news around some of these huge programs. They aren’t teaching life skills. They might be a heck of a coach, but they are teaching the wrong sets of skills. I might just be an average coach, but I want to be a heck of a teacher for these young ladies.”
Ellingsworth also joked that some of his strongest coaching skills are recognizing that he’s not the greatest softball coach to ever live. He joked about having the experience and foresight not to try and fix something that is working.
“I’ve had some girls that could just flat hit. I had one who was an incredible athlete, but she had one of the ugliest swings you’ve ever seen. Once, I had a fan come up and tell me I needed to help her. I needed to teach her how to swing. She was hitting over .400 at the time. Hitters don’t do that in college. Listen, I can take a .400 hitter with an ugly swing and make them a .220 hitter with a beautiful swing.”
It’s decades of that basic philosophy about life, teaching and coaching that led up to this latest milestone. As his players probably knew at the time, Ellingsworth said he wasn’t even thinking about 900 until after the last out had been made.
“I was just focused on trying to win the game. There we are, up 5-2 in the last inning. Parkland loads the bases with one out. I’m not nervous for the 900th win, I’m just worried about helping guide the team out of the jam. I called timeout and told my pitcher she was doing a great job. We had just kicked a sure double-play ball. I reminded her that we were up with an out. We had cushion to give up a run to get an out if we needed to. Even if we give up two, we still win the ballgame. But, I looked at her and told her that she was going to get a ground ball that was either going to come back to her or the third baseman. We’ll throw to the plate for the force out, and we’ll get the runner at first for the double play. I’ll be darned if we didn’t get a grounder to third, force at the plate and double play at first,” he said laughing and slapping his desk.
“Don’t ya love it when a plan comes together?”