They are local deans of the diamond, homegrown coaches and hometown heroes, who put down roots at the local college and may be ensconced there for life.
“My office is roughly 100 yards from my birthplace,” says Ken Howe from his windowless office in the bowels of Keene State College’s Spaulding Gymnasium.
“I take kids and parents on tours, and when I show them Elliot Hall, I tell them I was born in this building. I show them the wide doors they used for the gurney.”
Elliot Center today houses the Keene State admissions office, but was once the main hospital in Keene.
Carrah Fisk Hennessey recalls the first time she coached alongside Charlie Beach, well into her 30s. He was her softball mentor in Keene as a kid, as a collegian, even when she was head coach of a rival college. She returned home from New England College in Henniker to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Linda, as a kindergarten teacher and preschool evaluator in the Monadnock Regional School District, then accepted Beach’s offer to become his assistant in 2014.
What was that like?
“Hilarious,” Fisk Hennessey says with a hearty laugh. “And I mean that in a nice way.”
Recently, Howe and Fisk Hennessey sat down together to talk about their careers, and what it’s been like to coach Keene State’s baseball and softball teams in the city where they were born and raised. They laughed frequently, sharing common experiences and frustrations as the sports they love try to rediscover their niches in a fast-paced social environment foreign to their unhurried nature.
The pair were prolific athletes in Keene, garnering all-star attention as they progressed through high school and college. Howe mashed baseballs at Keene High and was recruited to play at Central Florida University in Orlando. But an injury cut his baseball career short, and he transferred to Keene State.
Fisk Hennessey was a star in the pitching circle and a star at the plate, at Keene High and Keene State. She graduated in 1999 as the college’s all-time home run leader, though that record has since been broken.
Both were goalies on the Keene State soccer teams.
Their families are in Keene — Howe’s sons Brandon and Dustin are on his staff — while Fisk Hennessey has four children, the oldest, Carter, just nudging into his teens.
All of their first names start with the letter “C,” of course, a longtime Fisk tradition that includes her father, Conrad, her late grandfather, Cecil, and her uncle, Carlton, a Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer who hit one of baseball’s most memorable home runs in the 1975 World Series.
“It’s come full circle,” Fisk Hennessey says of her return to Keene.
Even though she was the head softball and soccer coach at New England College for nine years, she was still nervous about joining Beach’s staff as an assistant. It’s a very different role than a head coach, especially after having her own program for nearly a decade. She knew it would work the first time she told a batter her front shoulder was flying out too early.
“Good coaching,” Beach bellowed.
“I don’t know if I could have been an assistant coach for anybody but Charlie,” Fisk Hennessey says. “That was a remarkable experience that I got to coach with my college coach. Nobody gets that chance.”
Beach’s 29-year tenure ended bitterly when he was let go before the 2016 season. Fisk Hennessey was tabbed to take his place — with Beach giving her his full support — and the pair remain close.
Howe is pretty much Mr. Baseball at Keene State. The program was dormant for many years, until Howe and John Scheinman revived it in 1987 as co-coaches. Howe took over for good in 1990 and has been in the dugout ever since. He is in the top 10 nationally for most wins in Division III — “and losses, too” — he says with a chuckle.
More than 30 of his former players have gone on to coach. He’ll be at one of their high school games and sometimes recognizes the same signs they use at Keene State. “I know what’s going to happen before it happens,” he says.
Both have seen plenty of changes in their sports, and in their players. Zelda was just coming into its own as a video game when Howe started coaching, and there was no such thing as a cellphone. Players had time to study the game, learn the game, appreciate the game. Now, their slower paces are a detriment to a society that increasingly insists on non-stop action.
“Everything for this (generation) is instantaneous. It’s like they can’t wait for things to happen — they have to always be moving their thumbs,” Fisk Hennessey says, referring to constant cellphone use.
Today, large baseball and softball showcases are proliferating year-round, with coaches flocking to these tournaments to recruit. Fisk Hennessey calls it the money effect; that is, if it costs more to play on a particular team or in a particular tournament, it must be better.
Howe adds that lacrosse is also taking a bite out of baseball. “Kids are used to things moving quickly, like in lacrosse,” he says. “Baseball is slow. It’s supposed to be. It’s a mental game and a physical game, and when it’s over you’re supposed to be mentally tired. ... Something that happens in the first inning could come back and haunt you eight innings later.”
He implores his players to watch live games on TV, not Play Station games where left fielders with super-human arms throw out baserunners at first base. It doesn’t prepare you for the real game, he says.
Baseball and softball also teach how to deal with failure, since batters hitting .300 are still failing seven times out of 10.
Keene State may never be a baseball and softball powerhouse haven, with geography alone providing a stiff challenge. Their home seasons are often abbreviated, with weather leaving the fields a mess in early spring. But both have had success in Division III, with several NCAA appearances, although baseball is 13-20 and softball 16-18 this year. Bad weather has been a consistent feature again this spring.
“We went to Florida (in mid-March) and the fields were clear. It was very frustrating — it was the first time ever I came back and said, ‘Look how much snow came.’ ”
It’s merely a matter of dealing with the frustrations inherent with baseball and softball in New Hampshire. Yet there’s no place they’d rather be.
As Fisk Hennessey tells her players after a bad day: “Own it, flush it, move on.”
Steve Gilbert is a staff columnist for The Sentinel.