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It was only opening day for high school softball in Connecticut on Wednesday, but I already had it figured out where I was going to be on Saturday afternoon, May 4. That's the day Ledyard designates its high school fields as the Ellen Mahoney Softball Complex.
Mahoney won seven softball state championships in 21 seasons coaching at Ledyard, beginning the program in 1976 and going 355-84 (.809) in her hall of fame career.
Her teams reached seven straight state championship games from 1990-96, 10 overall, and once had a 105-game regular-season winning streak. In her final season, before Mahoney left to accept a job on UConn's softball coaching staff, Ledyard was 26-0 with its 10th straight ECC regular-season title and the Class LL state championship.
So ... the last couple of days I've spent some time trying to figure out how to explain Ellen to people who don't know who she is, who have come along at some point in the 17 years since she left coaching the Colonels and aren't privy to their history.
Part of the lure of the Ledyard program for me, perhaps, was that I played against it in high school. Ellen was the coach of the "enemy," the Colonels' mystique never greater than for people on the other end of it.
Part of it was the privilege, as a reporter, of watching something so well thought out enacted on a softball field. The talent was tremendous, but the precision was remarkable. Not many people beat Ledyard. It was a flat-out dynasty, if they can exist in high school sports. Ellen Mahoney was the team's self-made engineer, easily one of the best coaches in the ECC in any sport. Ever.
One of her favorite quotes, by Thomas Jefferson: "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."
I emailed Ellen's former assistant coach Bob Howland, who now lives in New Hampshire, so that he could help me explain Ellen's value to the coaching profession.
He wrote back, at length, of her preparedness, of her knowledge of opposing hitters' tendencies which were documented on a spray chart. Ellen called her own pitches, a master at setting up batters.
"Ellen had a check list to cover before the first game of the season," Howland said. "She had practice plans for every practice and would check off what was covered that practice and would talk to the coaching staff about the skills covered and mastery level of each.
"She often said to me that she worried about not having covered a game situation that might cause the team to lose a game. I don't recall it ever happening."
So it happened that Ellen became not just the coach of the other team from when I was a kid, but a career-long friend. I spoke on her behalf at a banquet once, not even a fraction as well-prepared as she was, getting so nervous I all but shoved the award into her stomach on the way back to my seat, sweating profusely. Her speech was infinitely better than mine, of course.
Ellen is a devoted student of softball, a champion of the game and her players, whom she never wanted to let down by being ill-prepared. She is most loyal to those who are loyal in return. She is a fellow Red Sox fan and a nice lady, too, except when you're trying to beat her team, I guess.
"We could not ask for a better role model than Ellen Mahoney for our student athletes, but particularly for our female athletes," Ledyard principal Amanda Fagan said in a recent press release, Fagan having attended Ledyard during the Mahoney era.
"Her focus, her dedication, her patience and passion — these are the traits that best serve our athletes not only on the playing field, but also in their lives. I hope that our high school players and the girls in our youth league will hear about the woman for whom their field is named and try to emulate her in all they do."
On May 4, Ellen Mahoney Softball Complex will be fittingly named for one of the region's first and finest softball coaches.
See you then.
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