BY JEFF FALK
What it seems to have all boiled down to was a coaching record versus a mistake. Or perhaps more specifically, each side’s interpretation of the severity of that mistake.
But in the final analysis, it may have also become a lesson in loyalty and forgiveness. Just another example of sports teaching us things that can’t be learned in the class room.
Dave Bentz has been fired as the head coach of the Annville-Cleona softball program. After refusing to resign or retire, Bentz’s annual contract to guide the Little Dutchmen has not been renewed, apparently due to an unsatisfactory evaluation.
That unsatisfactory evaluation appears to have stemmed from an incident near the end of the school year, in late May, when Bentz lent his keys to Annville-Cleona High School’s building to a student/player. The keys were used to execute a prank on another Annville-Cleona coach, but then were apparently passed along to a different student.
“I think so,” said Bentz, when it was suggested to him that the A-C administration saw his mistake as being more serious than he did. “The judgement was handed down very hastily. The interim superintendent (Dr. Jeffrey Miller), it was like his last final act, and the new superintendent (Dr. Cheryl Potteiger) was shadowing him for like two weeks. She told me she will not over rule his decision. I kind of thought they could’ve talked to me first. When Tommy (athletic director, Long) first told me, I was going to be terminated at the end of the season.
“Yes, I gave up my keys,” continued Bentz. “I could’ve lied. I didn’t. I kept my integrity. I understand I did something wrong. Does anything in this story seem right? The whole thing comes down to school board members knowing I’m a valuable resource coaching young ladies. But the school board will not step on administration’s toes.”
Bentz learned his fate on Monday afternoon, through a phone call from Potteiger, the school district’s third superintendent in the last year. One of the things Potteiger told Bentz was that her decision would not be put to a vote of the school board members.
“After the (school board) meeting where everyone talked, that following Monday, I found out there was going to be no vote,” said Bentz. “I called a board member and he told me they’re standing pat with the first decision. I didn’t have a whole lot of words. So I called the school and tried to reach the superintendent. Then around 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m., I got a call, ‘Mr. Bentz, this is Dr. Potteiger. I was wondering what you want to talk about’. I said, ‘Has there been any change in my status?’ She said, ‘Your evaluation was unsatisfactory, so the job will be posted.’ I said, ‘I did one thing basically wrong, but nobody was hurt’.
“But she did not say I could not put my name in (for the now open position),” Bentz continued. “After that I called Tommy (Long). He said, ‘My hands are tied’. Tommy said it (the decision) went right to the top. ‘My supervisors told me not to recommend you back’. Deep down, I think he’s (Long) behind me 100 percent.”
For his part, Bentz has acknowledged his mistake. He said he would never lend his keys to a student again, but apparently that is a decision that has been taken out of his hands.
“Definitely not,” said Bentz. “What I would’ve done is walk with them and got the tennis balls. Over night, they gave the keys to someone else, and that’s when it happened. There’s a lot of intangibles you could throw in there. What I did seems pretty minor. I’m basically a punching bag. She said school security is key. Something bad could’ve happened. But it didn’t. Why didn’t I get a second chance?
“Two girls got inside the school,” added Bentz. “They blew up balloons and put them in the hallway. They put up banners that said, ‘Seniors 2016’. They put cups of water on steps for kids to step on. Balloons and streamers, and that was it. Someone said it was one of the most G-rated pranks they ever heard of. There were four boys who chalked something on walls. That stuff outside was 15 times worse than what was done in school, and nobody was disciplined.”
Because of privacy concerns and personnel legalities, it is difficult to get the second side of stories like this one.
But pretty sure that there aren’t many administrators around who see any prank as ‘harmless’. And one could argue that the safety of students should be administrators’ top priority, a responsibility that is more their’s than a softball coach’s.
“Apparently,” said Bentz. “I think so. The fact that I gave up my keys, it’s like an unwritten law, and I get it. But nothing serious happened. I think it’s the wrong decision, and so do 5,000 other people. But sit me down for a couple of games. Take away my pay. We don’t coach for money at Annville-Cleona.
“Oh sure, every coach has (lent his or her keys to a student),” Bentz added. “If any coach says they haven’t, they’re either a first-year coach or they didn’t hear the question. But this was the first time they were held over night.”
When the news of Bentz’s dismissal spread, the out pouring of support from within and from outside of the close-knit Annville-Cleona community was overwhelming. Hundreds of letter and emails were passed on to members of the school board, and some former players and parents spoke on his behalf at a meeting on June 16.
“The emotion meter was running very high. I’m very emotional. I carry a lot on my sleeve,” said Bentz. “It was very humbling to hear those things. It’s pretty cool. It was emotionally charged. I think young girls need to follow the right path. Some were saying I was like a father figure to them. It’s been a nightmare, but the comments made at the school board meeting were unbelievable. I guess I wasn’t just a coach. Someone told me, ‘If you don’t come back to coach, you have that’.
“I must’ve made a difference in their lives,” continued Bentz. “I’ve cherished kids. I’ve scolded them. I’ve patted them on the back. I’ve cried with them. We had a pretty good bond with the kids over the years. That might be the part I missed the most, if I never come back. It’s all that little stuff. It’s not just being in the third-base coaching box, and having them score from second base. I don’t think some of these administrators understand that.”
Bentz was in the third base coaching box on May 26 in Kinzers, during Annville-Cleona’s season-ending 2-0 setback to Pequea Valley, after the now infamous ‘key incident’ occurred. Bentz’s post-game message to his team that evening was especially emotional, and afterwards he notified members of the media present of his situation, but off the record.
“Well, it’s very important to me,” said Bentz of coaching. “It fills the void of not being able to play any more. That’s a key. I get that there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t fun. But the best part is having girls come to practice that first day and say, ‘I’m ready to play’. The girls did it. I just put their names in the score book. Then there were meetings we had away from parents when I called them out. The teaching part was pretty good. I thought the world of those girls. If I’m not there next year, I’ll probably be somewhere watching, just not anywhere near the bench.
“We lost two starting seniors and four seniors total,” Bentz added. “Basically, that’s what they have to replace. Everybody’s back. The junior class, who are going to be seniors, is very good. We have at least three pitchers coming back. They have given as much as they can to play, just like I do. I don’t think I’ve ever given less that 100 percent – ever – coaching. They (the Little Dutchmen) should be a league playoff participant and a district qualifier, again.”
Annville-Cleona is the premiere scholastic softball program in Lebanon County – has been for decades.
Since taking over from the legendary Jane Ebling 11 years ago, Bentz-coached clubs have won almost 160 games. Annville-Cleona captured the District Three Class AA championship in Bentz’s rookie year as head coach, in 2006.
“What happens if they don’t find a coach to their satisfaction?,” said Bentz, a 1976 graduate of Annville-Cleona. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to put my application in. Right now, that’s where we’re at. I’ve gotten 8,000 bits of advice during this seven weeks of hell. I’m looking for closure. If an option comes along that I see as valid, you never know, I might throw my name in. But Annville-Cleona is my school. Those are my girls. Maybe I have a chance. I don’t know.
“I’m throwing it around,” Bentz continued. “I’m not sure for what. I’ve had some conversations with people. What is foremost in my mind is softball at Annville-Cleona. They’re my kids. They’re my family.”
So it might be that closure is the key for Bentz. If he is ever to coach anywhere again, it may be that he must first be told he can’t coach at Annville-Cleona.
“I don’t know,” said Bentz, when asked if he will ever coach again. “It’s not in my hands. It’s in the hands of a higher power than me. If it’s right and it comes around, I might. I think my credentials speak for themselves. Politics are involved. I’d like to think I’m going to, sometime, somewhere, somehow.
“If I don’t come back, maybe it’s time to take a year off and do something different,” concluded Bentz. “I don’t know. I just want to coach. I’ve got lots of free time, and I can find things to do. But the whole thing is I just want to coach.”
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