SERGEANT BLUFF – Tom Prince probably enjoyed this particular water cooler bath more than any of the others he’s received in an illustrious 24-year run as Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School softball coach.
Prince was in the middle of an interview with the press after the Warriors knocked off No. 9 Denison-Schleswig 4-3 in a Class 4A regional final Tuesday at Denison when his team snuck up on him from behind him for the traditional dousing.
It was particularly hot that night, so the ice cold water surely felt refreshing. Moreover, SB-L pulled off an unexpected win to reach its seventh state tournament under Prince, a soon-to-be Iowa Girls Coaches Association Hall of Famer.
And, after hinting about retirement several times in the last few years, all indications are leaning toward this being Prince’s final season at the helm. If so, his team is sending him out in style.
“We’re not great, most of the time we get just enough to get by and get a win,” Prince said. “But I’ve told the girls this is a great experience, getting there once and now twice for most of them.”
Sergeant Bluff-Luton is the No. 6 seed in the 4A field and takes a 23-13 record into a first-round game against third-seeded Independence (34-6) Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. at Harlan Rogers Park in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
It’s the first time in school history that Sergeant Bluff-Luton has made back-to-back trips to the state tournament. The Warriors lost all three games a year ago to finish eighth.
When the week is over, regardless where his team ends up, Prince will enter the IGCA Hall of Fame. Ceremonies take place on Monday, July 23 in Waukee, Iowa.
If indeed it is his last go-around, it’s been a memorable ride for the 70-year-old Prince. His teams have racked up 695 wins (262 losses) and reached seven state tournaments.
More than the wins and losses, however, Prince will remember the relationships he forged with his players and their families.
“It’s so great to see those kids who played for you 10 or 15 years ago, get invited to their weddings and hear things that went on that you had no idea were going on,” Prince said. “The memories and relationships are the best part of it. We’ve had a lot of good players, good teams and we sometimes forget how lucky we are we have the kids we have here. Day in and day out they’re leaders in the classroom and community, good softball players who play the game the right way.
“For 24 years we’ve had very few problems and that goes back to the kids and their parents. We just sometimes forget how lucky we are.”
A fast-pitch softball player himself, Prince passed his love of the game on to his three daughters – Melanie, Mindi and Sherry – each of who played high school and collegiate softball. Melanie Bouman, his oldest daughter, has been Tom’s assistant coach the past 22 seasons.
“I think I started coaching Melanie when she was 9 and coached all three of them through travel ball,” Prince recalled. “I didn’t coach Melanie and Mindi in high school but coached Sherry her junior and senior year.”
Prince’s first season (1995) produced a 16-18 record, but since then, his teams have reeled off 23 consecutive winning seasons with at least 20 victories.
“At that time Jim Anfinson was the athletic director and I told him I would try it for five years,” Prince said. “Now this is year 24, so I guess I fulfilled that.”
Prince’s 2007 team won 40 games and the 2008 and 2013 squads finished third in the state tournament. He was district coach of the year in 2006, ’08 and ’13 and the Class 3A coach of the year in 2013.
Prince has experienced a particular sense of pride the past four seasons coaching his granddaughter, Bradee Bouman (Melanie’s daughter). Bradee has compiled a 51-17 record and has been the No. 1 pitcher on the staff each of the last two seasons.
“It’s definitely been a pleasure to have a front row seat for all of this,” Melanie Bouman said. “I think I learned something from him almost daily. He has such a unique way of looking at the game and always thinking outside the box. He’s not afraid to try something new or different, he just kind of has that sense.
“That’s pretty unique for somebody who’s been doing it as long as he has. He has absolutely no ego. It’s never been about him, so an honor like this even makes him a little uncomfortable because it’s always about the girls.”
Tom is the first to credit Patti, his wife of 49 years, for being the one who caught each of his daughter’s pitches in the backyard. Patti has been at his side the entire time, dutifully keeping the scorebook while also serving as the team’s No. 1 fan.
“When he sent an e-mail to us three girls about getting in (Hall of Fame) there were a lot of tears from all of us, extremely excited for him,” Bouman said. “We all know how deserving he is of it. All the hours, all the conversations, rehashing of all the games and everything that goes into it. We were very excited for him and proud of all he’s done.”
Prince, like all coaches, doesn’t like to compare teams, but said the 2013 squad that was ranked No. 1 heading into the state tournament and lost only a 3-2 extra-inning game to eventual champion Bondurant-Farrar en route to a third-place finish may have been his best.
“I have talked to their coach several times afterward and he said if we played 10 times you might beat us seven or eight, but that particular night we beat you and I felt that way, too,” Prince said. “We ended up third but we were the best team that year and that’s probably the best overall team I’ve had here.”
The seasons went by so quickly, but the original plan was for Melanie to take over once Prince decided to retire. After all, Tom said, ‘she does most of the coaching anyway.’
“It’s gone so long now and with Bradee graduating Melanie is done for sure and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be done, too. I have said it before but if there is a good time it’s probably right now, with her leaving and Bradee gone.
“There’s no doubt I’m going to miss it, it’s what I’ve done every summer since I was 30 years old,” Prince said. “I’ve signed a contract for next year and I’ve talked to (athletic director) Brian (Herman) and (superintendent) Rod (Earleywine) about it. Rod told me yesterday that he hadn’t seen a letter of resignation yet and I said you won’t see that until next spring.”
The Hall of Fame honor, Prince said, was unexpected and humbling.
“I don’t think anybody goes into coaching with the Hall of Fame in mind,” Prince said. “We’ve had good teams for a lot of years, good kids, players, coaching, the whole package. It’s humbling but I’m very proud of the honor.”