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    Thursday, May 23, 2024

    Bailey (pink sunglasses and all) is Wheeler’s pied piper

    Wheeler High School softball coach Stephen Bailey high-fives Chloe Sanders as she lands on third base during a game against Putnam on April 24 in North Stonington. Bailey was also the coach of the Wheeler boys’ basketball team this winter which made a run to the ECC Division II tournament championship at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Wheeler boys’ basketball coach Stephen Bailey celebrates his team’s win over Stonington in the ECC Division II champsionship game Feb. 27 at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    North Stonington — The boys of winter watched amusingly earlier this week, their old coach who donned the snazzy suits for basketball in more casual duds for softball: maroon Wheeler High polo, maroon Wheeler High cap, khaki shorts and — oh, they loved this one — pink sunglasses.

    “There’s definitely not as much yelling going on with the girls as with us,” Wheeler basketball player Kyle Kessler said. “Coach is calmer. He’s more zen.”

    “Coach,” in this case, is Steve Bailey, who led the merry band of Lions a few months ago now, to do the Stray Cats thing: They rocked this town, rocked it inside out. Wheeler basketball not only captured the fancy of No Sto, but the rest of the region as well. The Little School That Could won a conference tournament championship at Mohegan Sun and made it to the state semifinals, outgrowing their “gymatorium,” selling out gyms at Fitch and Norwich Free Academy.

    Ah, but tomorrow, as it always does, is upon us. Basketball is but a happy memory. It is spring in No Sto, where Bailey, who has become the pied piper, is out there coaching softball. No more sellouts. No GameDay. No more rock stars. But every bit the same passion for the man in the pink sunglasses, whose offseason lasted under 24 hours.

    “Pitchers and catchers started that Monday (March 11) and I wasn’t there because Tuesday we had the semis against Cheney Tech,” Bailey was saying Tuesday after his softball team improved to 7-4. “The next day, I went to pitchers and catchers. I could have taken some selfish time, but I have a good group of girls. I owe it to them. We’re trying to build something here.

    “It was tough to transition. But the kids keep me accountable as much as I keep them accountable. People have commended me for it, but I’d rather commend the players.”

    Keywords from previous paragraph: We’re trying to build something here. This is what truly matters to Bailey. Building basketball. Building softball. Building a culture. Sure, they’ll always have the basketball winter of 2024, much like Rick and Ilsa always had Paris in “Casablanca.” But then, Steve Bailey doesn’t have time for sentiment.

    “We're at seven wins,” he said. “When I took the program over, the seniors that I had after COVID never made the tournament in their entire high school career. We’ve tried to provide this program with a winning culture.

    “You know,” he said, “we made the state tournament (upset Holy Cross that first year as a 20 seed) and talked about winning games. It's about trying to have that athletic prowess. It's not ‘little old Wheeler.’ It's ‘why not Wheeler?’ It’s something I've tried to implement here at the school. The boys’ basketball program and softball program — I want them to have the same mentality. And that’s ‘why not us?” It’s not ‘we're little ol’ Wheeler and we're gonna do the best we can.’ No, it's not about that.”

    Bailey was quite entertaining during basketball, wearing the emotions of school history’s evolution. He is more zen during softball, occupying the third base coaching box and barking out random instructions to his players in the form of colors and numbers. The Lions appeared to do quite well during “Orange 8,” although only Bailey and his players know the code.

    “I would say, yes, I'm a little calmer in softball. I do hold my tongue,” he said. “But if there's something that needs to be heard, it gets said. The kids will be receptive. They're tough.”

    Perhaps not as tough as watching Kessler, Deondre Bransford, Jason Krysiewicz and Keith Zardies (among others) graduate, though. Their bout with school history left expectations — perpetual expectations — at least while Steve Bailey is the sheriff.

    “You still have those moments. You still see things on social media that bring it back,” Bailey said of basketball, 2024. “I had a fellow football coach (Bailey had been an assistant at East Lyme) who I had worked with for six years, text me about it. One of the softball umpires, Cheryl Banker, congratulated me. So you still get those. The town, the school, the administration, Ellen (athletic director Ellen Turner), the boys and my coaching staff, I owe huge thanks for trusting me.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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