May 15th, 2012

St. X Grad Finds Success In Unlikely Place

Chris Jung

Senior Writer


St. X Grad Finds Success In Unlikely Place
photo courtesy of Meghan Clark

Former Tiger builds Illinois softball program into winner

In a city that was declared the "Hometown of Superman" in 1972, St. Xavier High School graduate Patrick Clark is leading a soaring group of super young women to heights never before seen.

It's not the Justice League, but Clark's Massac County High School varsity softball team in Metropolis, IL has been one of the most successful teams in the state this season and, for the first time in program history, has won the Southern Illinois River-to-River Conference while locking up the No. 1 seed in the region.

Appropriately known as the "Lady Pats," Clark's squad won the Lone Oak Invitational Tournament earlier this season, lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to regional powerhouse Goreville and recored a school record 28 regular season victories in 34 games played.

But what makes the success of the Massac County Lady Patriots and progression of the program even more impressive is that the team's head coach - Clark - was offered and accepted the position five years ago despite a lack of softball coaching experience.

Terms like "on-the-job training" and "trial by fire coaching" are an extreme understatement when it came to Clark's situation in Metropolis in 2007, mainly because the former  St. X Tiger outfielder planned on coaching high school baseball after graduating from Murray State University.

"I knew (softball) was much faster, and quite different from baseball. I knew I was going to have to immerse myself in literature about the sport, attend clinics, and do everything in my power to not only learn the sport, but to develop my skills as a head coach," said Clark. "The biggest adjustment for me was being in charge of the team, teaching the skills that came so easily to me but that many of my players lacked at that time. The nuances of the game such as slap hitting, unique bunt coverage, and line-up flexibility with a designated player or flex player took a lot for me to get used to."

"The first two seasons were very overwhelming. I had little to no talent to work with, we won six games in two years," he continued. "And I questioned whether or not this was what I needed to be doing"

Ever the competitor, Clark didn't allow his lack of knowledge to slow him down.

A Louisville native, Clark played youth baseball at Germantown Little League, attended St. Stephen Martyr and eventually went on to St. Xavier where Clark played basketball, but kept baseball as his primary sport of focus. He played center field on the freshman and JV teams for Paul Madinger and then in the outfield during his senior season for former St. X head coach and Hall of Famer Joe White.

Following his career at St. X, Clark took part in a two-day tryout at Murray State in an attempt to play baseball as a college freshman, but things did not pan out as expected with the Racers.

"It was a shot to the heart when the head coach at MSU sat me in his office and told me they were not looking for outfielder. That hurt. And I took it as if I was not good enough when I had believed that wasn’t the case," said Clark. "I was content ending my competitive playing days after that and tried to enjoy life. That is definitely a time in my life I do not regret knowing now how special the game is to me and the true joy I had while playing."

With collegiate baseball out of the picture, Clark eventually decided to pursue a degree in special education at the western Kentucky institution. He graduatd with his Bachelor Degree in that exact area in 2007 and instantly knew that he wanted to parlay baseball coaching into his teaching career.

"I knew when I entered the education program at Murray State that I wanted to teach and impact young lives in a positive manner; coaching was an added benefit to that," said Clark. "I knew I always wanted to coach, I just was never sure in what capacity that would be."

He would soon find out.

"After graduating from Murray State, the (teaching) job at Massac County High School found me," said Clark. "I had made contacts through a teacher job fair at MSU and fortunately had two positive interviews and was offered a job as a collaborative special education teacher. I knew I wanted to stay in the area with my soon to be wife (who was attending Murray State for grad school) and Massac just felt like the right fit"

A few weeks after he was hired at Massac County, Clark was contacted was by the school athletic director and informed him that no coaching positions were available for either baseball or basketball, meaning further disappointment for Clark.

But the phone call didn't end there.

"There were no coaching jobs on the teams I hoped for, but I was told that a softball coaching position was open and (the AD) asked if I was interested," said Clark. "I told him I was, but that being an assistant would probably be best. I was told it was the head coaching spot that was open and there were no other candidates. I hesitantly accepted and definitely had my concerns about my abilities to learn, and to coach fastpitch softball"

Unsure if he had made the right decision, Clark approached his new position the best way he knew how - by drawing from and applying his St. X baseball and Catholic education values.

"The biggest thing that I brought from my upbringing and playing days at St. Xavier was the work ethic necessary to become successful. I was taught and played with the belief that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish any goal you set your sights on," said Clark. "That philosophy is one that I have tried to instill here at Massac County. My biggest emphasis is doing the little things right. When we can be fundamentally sound, I am very confident that we can be successful."

Clark also heeded the advice of his friend and former coach.

"Coach (Joe) White and I talked about where I was professionally and the status of my team. He is a man I respect very much, he taught me so much about how to manage a team, how to treat people the right way, to fight for your players, and to play the game the right way," said Clark. "When we get to talk, it is mostly to catch up on life, which is something I will always treasure about him. I have always known he cares more about the man I have become rather than our connection through the game and that means the world to me."

With the support of family, friends, former coaches and an athletic director that decided to take a chance, Clark immediately dove directly into the task at hand and began to build a program upon the foundation of hard work, dedication and, most importantly, grasping the basics of the game.

"The biggest thing in my eyes is believing that winning can be who we are and what this program is about. If you work hard enough, play harder than your opponents, and strive to get better each and every day, success will find you," said Clark. "That same work ethic is also capable of maintaining that success, which is our ultimate goal. Fundamentals, knowing the game, the situation, and being confident is what I try to instill in every one of my players.

During his first couple seasons on the softball diamond, Clark was frustrated. His teams suffered back-to-back losing seasons and things were not clicking as naturally as he was used to. He also found himself getting more upset about losing than his players were, which was an extreme change in his competitive culture.

"The most difficult thing I have had to learn is that as a player, a competitor, and as a male, the game was my life. I was torn up when we lost, and elated when we won," said Clark. "Now I have learned that the emotions do not run as high with females in regard to the ups and downs of the sport. I sometimes get frustrated questioning their desire when in reality it just comes in different forms, and maybe isn’t expressed as openly as I was accustomed to as a player."

Clark's ability to harbor his emotions roller coaster began to make a difference in his approach to coaching. And as the positive changes began to occur, Clark continued to take a look at his spiritual life and drew inspiration from that aspect of his life.

"I firmly believe that my faith has played a major role in my role as a teacher and coach at Massac County. God is essential to me, my family, and my life. I have been blessed in so many ways and I try everyday to give Him all of my thanks and praise for what I have been so blessed to experience," said Clark. "I believe the biggest lesson for me is humility, never allowing myself to get too high or too low. Coaching softball is a privilege, it does not control who I am or what I am about. I try to incorporate the beliefs of doing right, leading by example, and giving myself up so that others may succeed."

As those revelations have been put into actions, so have the check marks into the winning column.

This year, as Clark celebrates his 5th season in the dugout, the now seasonsed softball coaching veteran is witnessing results that he pictured in his mind when he first accepted the coaching gig in 2007. And despite the fact that becoming a baseball coach was his original vision, Clark's involvement with softball at Massac County has drastically evolved.

"This is my dream job," said Clark. "Five years ago I would have never believed that we would be in the midst of a magical season, winning the first ever softball conference championship while going undefeated in conference play, having the best record in school history, being Lone Oak Invitational tournament champions, having the  No. 1 seed in our regional, and setting our sights on a regional, sectional, super-sectional, or state championship were all things that were a dream that is currently coming true."

On Tuesday evening, Clark & Co. will take on Vienna in southern Illinois and take the first step toward those aforementioned and coveted postseason milestones. Massac County (28-5-1) defeated the Vienna Lady Eagles 10-6 in late March.

"Our team is built around our offense. We are so strong one-through-nine in our line-up that I feel we can play with, and beat anyone on any given day. We still have a lot of young kids, so continued growth on defense and building our experience is something we still have to look forward to," said Clark. "That is an area that I am focusing on so that as a team, we see we can continue to get better each and every day."

Clark, who now resides in Paducah, KY and is expecting his first child in June along with wife Meghan, says that if the right job ever came along and seemed like a better fit for himself and his family, he would consider it.

"For now, I'm very happy with where I am in my life and what this program is doing, so there is no desire on my part to pursue anything else at this time," says Clark.

"I love baseball, and that will never change," he continued. "Softball has done nothing but develop a great appreciation for another sport. I thoroughly enjoy this game, there is so much I can still learn and that is something that drives me from day to day. I wouldn’t say I have been surprised about the path my life has taken, but I value the experiences I have gained and the blessings God has provided me with."

In the history of its school, Massac County has only played one game in the IHSA state softball tournament; the Lady Patriots lost that game 4-3 against Freeburg in 1985. Clark's bunch can change that this season and is aiming to knock down many program barriers as the 2012 version of his team flies into the playoffs on Tuesday night.

In order to reach the state tourney Final Four in Peoria, IL, the Lady Pats will have to win two regional games, two sectional games, and a super-sectional game.

"Those steps have been a goal of ours all season," said Clark. "And I am looking forward to seeing what kind of noise we can make as playoff softball gets going."

Regardless of the results, it's safe to say that Clark has earned his cape in Metropolis.

As for his coaching career, the sky is the limit.

 

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