NEW PORT RICHEY — After nearly 19 seasons of coaching softball, River Ridge High coach Ernie Beck still enjoys the game.
His joy for coaching is apparent on a day-to-day basis and was again at practice on Monday afternoon for the Royal Knights’ longtime staple, who is retiring at season’s end. Hitting ground balls to the infielders and cracking an occasional joke, Beck is nearing his final game as River Ridge’s coach, which has him thinking more about the task at hand, which is hopefully to guide his squad to the Class 5A state final four.
“This probably sounds bad, but I make less of it than a lot of people do,” Beck said of his eventual last game at River Ridge. “I just want these kids to have a good time and to play well. When the season began, doing your last this and last that came about, but you can’t worry about things like that. Not right now.”
Beck and his players are worried about getting past the region final, which is where River Ridge’s season has ended the past two seasons at Bradenton Lakewood Ranch. Though the Mustangs are not in the way this season, a couple of area teams pose tough obstacles, including Thursday’s region quarterfinal opponent, Brooksville Nature Coast, which has been ranked in the state poll all season. A possible region semifinal game vs. Brooksville Hernando is also looming.
“Go all the way,” Beck said of his objective for this, his last postseason. “That’s what it is all about for these kids. We’ve been two games away for the past couple of years and they’d like to get over the hump.”
Beck has nearly 400 wins, but the one thing that has eluded him is winning a state title. Bringing home River Ridge’s first state softball title is the ultimate goal for the retiring Beck and his players.
“We want to make it special for (Beck) and win a state championship for him,” senior Morgan Tolle said. “It’d be so awesome if we could make it all the way to states. For my last year and coach Beck’s last year, I’d really like to make that happen.”
A fairly new postgame celebration dance, which was created by junior pitcher Makenzie Goluba, has brought out the youthfulness in Beck. The team circles the coaches, and Goluba runs from the infield clay and points to each player to sit down before falling down herself, and all the coaches follow her lead.
The hope is that there will be five more dances in Beck’s final postseason run.
“He’s just been letting loose and having fun,” Goluba said of Beck’s last season. “We’re making it a great last season. When it’s time to play, we get down to business, and when we’re done we have some fun. It makes it very enjoyable to come out each and every day. The goal is five more dances, very much so.”
Correspondent Andy Villamarzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @avillamarzo.