Coach of the year

Michael M. M c Mahon

First-year coach Peter Vearling guided Keene to a No. 5 seed in the state tournament on the heels of a six-win campaign. The team also won respect on and off the field, garnering the NHIAA Sportsmanship Award.

Peter Vearling was going to turn the job down.

He had to, he thought. There was no one way he could commit to coaching softball, no matter how bad the itch was after stepping away from the sport three years earlier.

At the time, Vearling was caring full time for his wife of 49 years, Judith, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was following my heart and then my head kicked in,” Vearling said. “When I found out I had gotten the job, I didn’t sleep the whole night. I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do this and care for my wife?’ ”

But the itch to get back into coaching proved persistent, and Vearling put in place a plan for his wife to get the care she needed so he could dedicate the time necessary to coach.

“It all worked out,” said Vearling, who noted that none of it would have been possible without the help of his wife’s caretaker, Shelby Durant, a senior at Keene High School. “I was able to give the kids as close to 100 percent as someone possibly can.”

It’s not hard to figure out the source of Vearling’s yearning to return to the diamond.

He won 263 games and a state championship at Pioneer Valley in Northfield, Mass., over a 21-year span.

“I love doing the coaching thing and I missed the kids a lot,” Vearling said. “I probably needed this more than the kids needed me.”

The veteran coach still takes pride in his infield-outfield practice and has an unwavering devotion to the fundamentals of the game, mainly defense.

Weeks after the season ended, Vearling was at Foster Field at Keene High tossing pine cones that had fallen onto the infield. Seeing grass peek up from the dirt in the infield brings him torment, a reminder of the distance between then and next season.

This spring, he inherited a young Blackbird team with talent that had yet to be tapped. Keene won just six games in 2017 and missed the Division I tournament, a vast under-performance by many’s standards.

Vearling’s reinstatement of the game’s simplest intangibles proved poignant.

“What you have to do is trust your players and you have to respect them,” Vearling said. “And you hope that you get the same thing back in return.”

“How much credit can I take?” Vearling asked. “They are the ones playing the game and paying the price for looking good or not looking good, not me. So I keep my ego out of stuff.”

The Blackbirds were rejuvenated. They showed their youthful spark and revealed a flair for the dramatic, winning four games by one run.

They fielded at a .967 clip. No returning players batted more than .300 in 2017. This spring, eight Blackbirds reached that mark.

Keene went 13-7 in the regular season and flirted with receiving a first-round bye in the Division I tournament, which is given to the top four teams. It settled for the No. 5 seed, and topped Manchester Central in first-round action at home.

Spaulding ended the Blackbirds’ season in the quarterfinals with a 2-1 walk-off victory. The Bird finished 14-8, matching their win total from the previous two seasons combined.

More notably to Vearling, the NHIAA awarded Keene with the Sportsmanship Award, voted on by opposing teams.

“It means everything, that was another of our goals,” Vearling said. “I told them there was no excuse. Wanting to win and do well is fine, but you have to be respectful of everyone else. We wouldn’t have games if it weren’t for umpires and another team. We all have the same goals; we want to have a good time. There is no excuse ever to not be respectful. So I was very proud of the kids for that.”

“I’ll never forget this team,” Vearling added. “They had this unbelievably different personality, unlike any other team I have ever coached. ... I don’t know whether validating is the right word. But it was definitely rewarding.”