Grain Valley High School softball team's unusual secret to team building? It involves an oar

Bill Althaus
The Examiner/USA Today Network

As Garrett Ogle walked into a classroom late Thursday afternoon, the fourth-year Grain Valley softball coach got a few odd looks from his players.

Let's see, he was carrying a clipboard and an oar. 

An oar? 

Ogle and other Grain Valley coaches are reading the book "Row the Boat: A Never-Give-Up Approach to Lead with Enthusiasm and Optimism and Improve Your Team and Culture," by P.J. Fleck and Jon Gordon. 

So, he introduced an oar to his team, which includes seven starters and both standout pitchers from a 25-5 season that included a district title and 9-1 mark in the Suburban Middle Six, which resulted in a first-place tie with Truman for the conference title. 

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This is Garrett Ogle's fourth year as head coach of the Grain Valley softball team, which is coming off a 25-5 season that included a district title and a share of the conference title. He introduced this oar to the team Thursday before practice, as a metaphor for all players working together to row the boat. He and other Grain Valley coaches are reading the book "Row the Boat: A Never-Give-Up Approach to Lead with Enthusiasm and Optimism and Improve Your Team and Culture."

During the course of the season, players who participate in special plays, moments of encouragement and team bonding and community service will have the opportunity to sign the oar. 

"I know they were wondering why I brought in an oar," Ogle said, "but after we talked about it, they totally understood. It's a great way to build team bonding and team culture.

"We've got seven starters back from last season, and a lot of other talented girls, and I think they know we have the chance to make this a special season, and I think something like this can make our season even more special." 

One returnee is Examiner All-Area team and second-team all-state pitcher Hailey Hemme, a junior who can't wait for the start of the season. 

Grain Valley starter Hailey Hemme throws a pitch in the Eagles' Class 4 state quarterfinal against Platte County last season. Grain Valley returns its top two pitchers, including Hemme, who was 12-2 with a 1.19 ERA and 141 strikeouts last season.

"Our goal is to get to state, and I think we have the team that can do it," said Hemme, who was 12-2 with two saves, 141 strikeouts, a 1.19 earned run average and just 35 walks in 88 1/3 innings. "I'm just so excited for the season to start, I can't wait. We're all so close, and we do so many things together off the field, and it seems like the teams that really care about each other have a lot of success." 

Sophomore infielder McKenah Sears agrees. 

"When you have seven starters back from a 25-5 team you expect to have success," Sears said, "but I think the expectations are going to make us work harder. We have underclassmen and great senior leaders, but we don't look at someone by what grade they're in. 

"We're all Eagles, we're all part of this team and we're going to work together to have a great season." 

Junior outfielder Mackenzie Keller believes the prospect for success will make the team work even harder. 

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"There is no chance we're going to go into the season overconfident, because last year we made a great run, but we didn't get to state, and that is our only goal this year," Keller said, referring to a 3-1 Class 4 sectional playoff loss to Platte County after a forfeit and a pair of shutouts to win the District 7 tournament title. 

"We have so many great girls on our team, and we love playing together and winning together. We're counting the days until our first game." 

Grain Valley senior Avery Huffman returns for the Eagles after hitting .330 with 21 RBIs and going 10-3 with a 1.72 ERA and 123 strikeouts as a pitcher last season.

The Eagles open play on Aug. 29 with pool play in the Greater Kansas City Suburban Invitational, starting with Chillicothe at 9 a.m. at Adair Park. 

And while senior Avery Huffman, a first-team utility player on The Examiner's 2020 All-Area Softball team, is excited about that opener, she doesn't quite know how to handle her final season as an Eagle. 

"It went too fast," Huffman, who was 10-3 with a 1.72 ERA and 123 strikeouts as a pitcher and hit .330 with 21 RBIs, said, frowning. "We got to play last year, and we won a lot of games, but we had all the COVID stuff to deal with, and it just took away so much of our success and the fun we could have as friends and teammates. 

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"And now I'm a senior. And I want the season to start because we're going to work hard and really be a good team, but I don't want it to end. I don't want it to ever end!"