By Sally Absher
Several months ago, the Focus reported on the untimely forced resignation of BHS Softball Coach Leonard Sams. Coach Sams took the BHS softball team to State tournament last May – a first in Bearden history, and had just been voted District Coach of the year by his peers. Two weeks later, the day after tryouts, Sams was fired. To date, no reason has been given.
A new coach has been hired, but only two members from last year’s team are returning. Evidently, BHS principal Dr. John Bartlett and Athletic Director Nathan Lynn assumed the players would accept the coaching change without question, quickly forget it, and return to play for Bearden this year. The BHS administration failed to understand the passion, independence, and loyalty of this group of young women.
The Focus met with five former softball players last week: seniors Maxey House, Haley Mullins, and Ellie Sexton, and sophomores Cameran McKenry and Elena Schusterick. Cassidy Heemshoth (junior) and Kaylor Susong (sophomore) had work conflicts, but submitted written statements.
We also heard from the family of a West Valley Middle student who played on the Bearden Middle softball team under the direction of Coach Sams. They are devastated by Sams’ departure from BHS, and told us their daughter is now likely to attend Catholic High School instead of Bearden as a result.
We asked the girls we met with what made them decide not to play for BHS this year. Ellie Sexton said, “I’m not playing softball for Bearden because of the injustice done to Coach Sams. I am sticking with him because what happened was wrong. I am standing by my coach. ”
Maxey House voiced a feeling of betrayal, saying, “I don’t feel comfortable with my principals anymore. I don’t feel like they have my back, I don’t feel like I have their support… It doesn’t seem right for somebody to hit a team this hard and then expect everyone to be OK with it.”
Cameran McKenry elaborated, “It would be understandable if everyone had a problem with Coach Sams, and the players had a meeting with him to discuss it and we couldn’t work it out, but everyone loved Coach Sams. The way they [Bartlett and Lynn] handled it wasn’t even humane. They showed up at State acting like everything was fine and dandy, and the day after tryouts (two weeks later), they up and fired him.”
We questioned if “everyone on the team” loved Coach Sams. The players admitted that there was a group of girls who graduated last year who had complained constantly. Yet, Coach Sams never held any of the negativity against them. These players started in every game, and with the help of Sams, all the seniors who wanted to are currently playing college softball.
But there was friction on the team. In fact, by the beginning of second semester last year the tension had gotten so great between “the seniors” and other players that Coach Sams called a meeting in January, before the season started. Sams invited Lynn to attend the meeting. The players had to confront the issues, and how they felt about them. They said the confrontation was “hard,” but it was a turning point.
The team went to Gatlinburg for their annual team trip. It didn’t start out well, but the players had enough fun and realized they could work past it all, and said it really brought everyone together. Mullins said, “We had an amazing weekend, we all had so much fun. We all just kind of came together, we did more activities together, and we wanted to be around each other.” And the bonding that occurred between players during the Gatlinburg trip lasted through the entire spring softball season, Sub-state, and State.
Mullins said, “It’s really disappointing, because the the day we beat Jefferson County to win Sub-state was the best feeling that anyone could ever have, and to be able to experience that, and then to have them take that from you, and completely crush it is heartbreaking.” Bearden beat Jefferson Co. on Bearden’s graduation day; that evening Dr. Bartlett mentioned how proud he was of the BHS softball team.
The girls we spoke with gave Coach Sams all the credit not only for taking the team to the State Tournament, but also for bringing them together as a team. Some of their teachers and classmates don’t understand why they aren’t playing for Bearden. The girls who spoke with us don’t understand how they possibly could.
House said “We were so excited about this year. With Coach Sams, we were just going to have a great season, growing together, making progress together.”
After they learned Sams had been fired, a group of players including House, Mullins, Sexton, Cassidy Heemsoth and Kaylor Susong met with Dr. Bartlett. Sexton said, “We told him that if Coach Sams wasn’t going to coach, that Bearden High School would not have a softball team, we would not be playing. And he called our bluff.”
Although other BHS athletic teams have lost highly respected coaches, Sexton pointed out, “We’re the first team that has actually said something, stood up to Dr. Bartlett, and talked to the press. He has just gotten away with this for so long.”
Elena Schusterick said she thinks Bartlett and Lynn have taken it to the point where they act like nothing happened. “They have not said a word to any of us about softball, no apologies, absolutely nothing.”
Cassidy Heemsoth said, “Many of the girls, including myself, have had an overall attitude change toward Bearden. I feel like if they can just fire him without even asking how any of the players feel about it, then they don’t have our best interest in mind at Bearden.” Some of the players, including Kaylor Susong, considered not returning to Bearden this fall.
These girls loved their coach. They spoke of his coaching talent, his generosity, his loyalty to the team, his fairness, and the respect he had from other coaches in the District and beyond. He not only developed them athletically, but instilled strong study skills and academic discipline as well. The BHS softball team had one of the highest GPAs of all athletic teams.
The Bearden administration underestimated the loyalty these young women have for their coach.