By DAVE HANNEMAN
for the review times
He whoops, he hollers, he jumps and shouts.
He high-fives opposing coaches during mid-inning crossovers, then huddles up his players for a quick coaching/cheerleading/mentoring session before they head back to the field.
Ray Dickerhoof coaches softball at one of the smallest and most athletically challenged schools in Ohio.
And he is absolutely having the time of his life.
“It’s my passion, and I love it,” says Dickerhoof, who is wrapping up his third season as head softball coach at Vanlue, one of Ohio’s smallest public schools.
Dickerhoof’s history is a well-traveled one. And impressive.
He was an All-Ohio Athletic Conference guard during his undergraduate days at Baldwin Wallace, and he played a year in the Canadian Football League. He returned to BW and was an assistant to coach Lee Tressel when the Yellow Jackets won the 1978 NCAA Division III national football championship.
An avid fastpitch softball player, he played 20-some seasons on some of the top teams in northeastern Ohio, including Faultless Rubber. A coach as well as a player, he once guided his Wadsworth AAU team to a third-place finish in the national tournament.
A science teacher by trade, Dickerhoof coached high school softball as well, and he was putting up Hall of Fame numbers. After a successful start at Mogadore Field, Dickerhoof took over a Hillsdale program and only added to its impressive softball reputation, compiling an eight-year 215-50 record that included a Division III state championship in 2000 and a state semifinal appearance in 2008.
And then he stepped back.
“Without being politically incorrect, it came down to certain members of the board have not liked me since I’ve been on there,” Dickerhoof told Ashland Times-Gazette sports editor Dusty Sloan following his 2008 resignation at Hillsdale. “I heard through the grapevine that (being non-renewed) was going to happen to me … It all came down to a political action of the school board.”
“I needed a change,” Dickerhoof says now.
“I’d won over 300 games, but I was getting burned out. Plus, my wife (Lori) had some health problems, so I said I was done.”
Dickerhoof was out of coaching for two years. But the passion for the game never went away.
“I was missing it, and my wife, who was a jockette herself and played softball at Akron (University), knew it,” Dickerhoof said.
“That was a hard two years. It was tough. My wife would say, ‘You want to go watch some games, don’t you?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ And that’s what we did. We started going and watching (softball) games.”
With a resume like his, Dickerhoof could have landed a position with a number of bigger schools with well-established softball programs. Instead, he ended up at a tiny Hancock County school on the other side of the state.
It brings to mind a comment Gene Wilder made to Cleavon Little in “Blazing Saddles”: “What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”
“I have a close friend who is a close friend of Mr. (Rod) Russell (Vanlue superintendent). That’s how I heard about the opening,” Dickerhoof said.
“I’m thinking, ‘Vanlue? Where the heck is Vanlue?’
“They said I should take a drive over, so I did. And when I came to Vanlue I fell in love with the place. I felt like I was back in the ’20s again because the building is immaculate. It’s gorgeous inside. I mean, the building is well kept up. People have no idea, seriously. I was astounded.”
Something about Vanlue took Dickerhoof back to his roots.
“I was a farm boy raised on a small farm out in Middlebranch, just north of Canton,” Dickerhoof said.
“Coming here felt like coming home. I just felt this was the place for me, and this is what I had to do.”
Ray Dickerhoof the science teacher has been rejuvenated.
“Before, I was teaching the same subject six or seven times a day. It was the same thing over and over and over,” Dickerhoof said. “By the end of the day, I was getting burned out. I had to write stuff down to make sure I told the kids about it.
“Here, every class is different, everything is different. I am the science teacher and I’m teaching all levels of science. I struggled with that my first year. I was staying up late at night. My head was spinning. But they kept telling me it would get better, and it has. Last year was a good year, and this year I think things are rolling. I enjoy that. That’s part of me being me.”
Ray Dickerhoof the softball coach has been rejuvenated as well.
In the 49-year history (1965-66 to the present) of the Blanchard Valley Conference, Vanlue has won a total of five league championships. All came in boys or girls basketball, and two of the five were shared.
The last BVC title Vanlue earned was a boys basketball championship during the 1990-91 season.
With a total high school enrollment of less than 100 students, numbers are always a factor in Vanlue’s efforts to field competitive athletic teams. Still, Vanlue was 11-16 in Dickerhoof’s first year as head coach and 15-10 last year and in contention for a possible BVC title much of the season.
Graduation and injuries have played a role in the Wildcats’ 6-14 record this season. But a telling number is that from a total athletic pool of 31 high school girls, Dickerhoof had 20 come out for softball.
The way Dickerhoof sees it, the teaching part of the job doesn’t stop in the classroom.
“My passion is here teaching these girls and showing them what the game is all about,” he says.
“I’ve been fortunate with where I’ve been and what I’ve been able to do. I think I’ve been able to pass that along to my students and these athletes … and it’s starting to rub off.”
Dickerhoof comes across as exuberant, upbeat and positive. But there’s another word he’d used to describe his coaching style, a style that he’s been adapting over the years.
“The way I coach would not have worked 10 years ago. You need to change with the times,” Dickerhoof said.
“I’m still what I call ‘gruff,’ because it’s love and being rough, too. The girls understand that. They know they might get chewed out now and then, but they also get praised and they get loved. It’s like having children. They’re my kids in school; they’re my kids on the ball diamond. And like anything else when you’re raising children, you pat them on the back and say, ‘Good job,’ but there are also times when you say, ‘What’d you do that for? You know better than that!’ so they learn right from wrong.
“The main thing is, don’t ever be phony. Just be yourself. The kids know I wear my emotions on my sleeve. They know I’ll laugh with them, I’ll shed a tear with them … that’s just how you have to be.”
Dickerhoof let that be known the minute he arrived as Vanlue’s softball coach.
“When I first got here, I noticed their uniforms were a little tacky,” he said. “So I went out and bought them a whole new set, white tops and white pants. Last year we did a breast cancer awareness game. For that one I bought pink shirts for all the girls, and their mothers.
“I’m not in this for the money. I’m not in this for the glory. I just feel if you’re going to do something, you need to do it right. I’ve always been that way.”
Last year’s breast cancer awareness game had a special meaning for Dickerhoof. His wife Lori is not only a registered nurse in the surgical unit at Cleveland Clinic, she’s also been a patient there. And while she’s a breast cancer survivor, she continues, as Dickerhoof says, “to deal with other cancer issues.”
That factors into a kind of make-the-most-of-the-moment philosophy for Dickerhoof, who owns a home in Wooster but rents an apartment in Carey so he can teach and coach at Vanlue during the week.
“It’s been a little tough being away from home, away from family,” Dickerhoof said.
“Basically I’m commuting back and forth on weekends, but my wife and I, we’ve probably communicated more in less time than we ever have. As soon as I get home we sit down and we talk, we’ll go for a drive, we’ll go out to eat, we have an RV and we do RV’ing in the summertime. … We’ve done more in the last three-four years than we have in the last 20, and that’s huge.
“We’re making the most of the time we have, and people need to realize that, because you never know how much time you have left.
“I tell these girls you never know when it might be your last swing of the bat or the last time you ever field and throw the ball. There are no guarantees in life, so you make the most of it every chance you get.”
If that means making just a little difference at a little school in the middle of northwestern Ohio, Dickerhoof figures that’s worth whooping and hollering about.
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