BY JEFF FALK
The wisdom shoppe is located at the intersection of Experience Street and Knowledge Avenue. But in a bit of an ironic twist, when we finally get there, our outlets become more and more limited.
You don’t run across too many 72-year-old rookie head coaches. But then again, you don’t run across many Ed Spittles either.
Spittle is only technically a first-year head coach. What he really is is one of the most experienced softball mentors who’s ever decided to return to coaching.
Spittle’s current stint as the head coach of the Northern Lebanon softball program – which he is only a few months into – is actually his second. With 50 years of coaching experience at his back, he is attempting to breathe new life into a program that’s been stagnant and dormant for years.
“George Kauffman’s my neighbor and he’s been watching me for years,” said Spittle of the former mayor of Jonestown. “He said, ‘You should’ve never got out of coaching. You’ve got so much to offer.’ Another person told me, ‘I’ve never seen anyone who breaks down the game like you do’. Why should I go sit down and take this knowledge to my grave? It’s in my blood. The opportunity presented itself and I took it.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever not enjoyed coaching,” continued Spittle. “You maintain a responsibility. When a game is on the line, I want to make the decisions. I never minded the pressure. I take chances when the percentages lean our way. It’s the little challenges. It’s the one-on-ones. It’s just the personal challenges and seeing the athletes respond. Maybe one day I’ll keel over at third base. But there’s a lot of ways to motivate people.”
After being away from coaching for four years, Spittle saw the Vikings’ off-season softball opening as an opportunity. Perhaps the truth is that Spittle never fully left the professional behind emotionally.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the job came open,” said Spittle. “I applied, interviewed and got selected. We got off to a really good start, but since then things haven’t gone as well.
“I’m unusual. I won’t give you the standard answers,” Spittle continued. “God’s been good to me. If I don’t win another game I’ll have won more than most. You learn your lessons. You get better. Then you develop a killer instinct. We’re not there yet. Not everybody’s light goes on at the same time. That’s what makes me feel good, seeing them (his players) get better and improve. If winning is part of it, it’s more fun. But it’s not necessary. It’s about them. It’s no longer about me.”
If it is Spittle’s intention to change a culture through winning – and not because of it – Northern Lebanon seems to be on its way. The Vikings are 6-5 overall and 4-5 in a Section Three of the Lancaster-Lebanon League which includes powers Lampeter-Strasburg, Donegal and Manheim Central.
“It’s probably going a little bit better than I expected,” said Spittle. “You’re in a section with the really big dogs, so in order to get to the Lancaster-Lebanon playoffs, we’re going to have to play some really solid softball. I think we’ve turned some heads. They (his players) are kind of still what they are. I didn’t know how good we would get or how long it would take. I don’t know if the expectations were there.
“The thing that’s really been a surprise is how good our pitching has been,” added Spittle. “We just pounded the defense to them. We’re starting three freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors. There are no seniors on the team. I think the coaching staff didn’t realize how young we are. Even though we’re learning, we’re playing teams that are two or three years older than us. With this travel softball, they’re getting so good so quickly.”
Spittle began coaching locally in the 1960s, and led the Jonestown junior legion baseball program to state championships in 1974 and 1979. He was an assistant softball coach at Northern Lebanon from 1991 to 1994, and then became the Vikings’ head coach for 2002 and 2003.
Spittle also assisted head coach Stacy Hollinger and the Lebanon Valley College softball program from 2005 to 2011. In addition, Spittle was the Flying Dutchmen’s head baseball coach from 1985 to 1990.
“Then my wife said to me, ‘You’ve been doing it for 50 years. Don’t you think it’s time to quit?’” said Spittle of an ensuing vacation-filled retirement. “I said, ‘Do you know what? You’ve sacrificed a lot.
“I think the changes that have taken place are that the equipment has gotten better, the players are faster, and they’re more knowledgeable,” Spittle added. “The game is more competitive. They play a lot more. They’re more proficient at it. The pitchers are better. From the 80s and 90s, the pitching really started to jump up and dominate. The game is still played the same way. You manage the same way. The fundamentals haven’t changed, but the kids are better at an earlier age.”
Spittle makes no bones about his old-school roots.
“There’s never enough playing time,” said Spittle. “That’s the thing you’ve got juggle. That’s where I see the difference – the players’ parents. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, kids wanted to earn a job. They would work and parents weren’t as demanding as they are today. Today, parents are a little more involved.
“The game isn’t really complicated,” continued Spittle. “It’s pretty basic. Sometimes we make it more complicated. But I like to see it played properly.”
Northern Lebanon was seated fifth in the latest District Three Class AAAA power rankings. If the Vikings can reach the playoffs, it would be their first measurable step forward under Spittle.
“Yeah, I think we can make it,” said Spittle. “We need to continue to play well and handle the teams we’re supposed to handle. It would be a nice experience for us. You always learn more from a loss than a win. When you’re in the district environment, the crowds get bigger and the pressure becomes a little more. When you go to the playoffs and everything is bigger, you start to feel like you belong. And it accelerates the process.
“If the playoffs would start tomorrow, we’d be in districts, which means we’re having a good season,” Spittle continued. “We have to keep getting the good pitching, play better defense and start swinging the bats. When you get really good, one or two plays are going to determine the outcome of a game. That’s how close it is in softball. No one player loses a game, because even if you do make that one mistake there’s a lot of ways to overcome it.”
From a big picture standpoint, the Vikings’ program needs stability at the top. One has to wonder how long Spittle can coach.
“I haven’t hit the wall yet,” said Spittle. “I was never one to go for a year or two. If you look at my track record, it was more than one year. I don’t know when the end will come. As long as I enjoy it and the athletic director doesn’t get tired of me, I’ll continue. Who knows?
“There’s a girl who’s going to come on to the team next year, and I coached her grandfather,” added Spittle. “Age is a number. At 72, I don’t feel old at all. As far as relating to the girls, I’m a firm believer in the fundamentals. With any phase of the game, you go back to the basics. The problem is usually one-sixteenth of an inch. If you make the adjustment, you’re back on track. We talk about discipline. If you’re fundamentally sound, you’ll be a good player.”
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PIAA District Three
Class AAAA Power Rankings
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