By DAVE HANNEMAN
He whoops, he hollers, he jumps and shouts.
He high-fives opposing coaches during mid-inning crossovers, then huddles up his players for some quick coaching/cheerleading/mentoring before they head back onto the field.
Ray Dickerhoof coaches softball at one of the smallest and least-consistently-successful schools in the state of Ohio.
And he is having the absolute time of his life.
“It’s my passion, and I love it,” says Dickerhoof, who is wrapping up his third season as head coach at Vanlue.
Dickerhoof’s history is a well-traveled one. And impressive.
He was an all-Ohio Athletic Conference offensive guard at Baldwin Wallace University, and played a year of pro football in the Canadian Football League. He returned to Baldwin Wallace and was an assistant to Lee Tressel when the Yellow Jackets won the 1978 NCAA Division III national championship.
Dickerhoof ended up with a teaching degree in one hand and ball glove on the other, and he went about putting both to good use. He played 20-plus seasons on some of the top men’s fastpitch teams in northeastern Ohio, including Faultless Rubber. He began coaching the sport as well, guiding his Wadsworth AAU team to a third-place finish in the girls fastpitch national tournament.
A science teacher by trade, Dickerhoof started his high school coaching career at Field High School and began putting up Hall-of-Fame-like numbers. He took over at Jeromesville Hillsdale, a perennial power, in 2000 and in his first season guided the Falcons to a 29-5 record and the Division III state championship.
Dickerhoof followed a 19-9 record in 2001 with seven straight 20-win seasons and another trip to state (2007). And then, after posting a 215-50 record in eight years as Hillsdale’s head coach, he stepped back.
“Without being politically incorrect, it came down to certain members of the board have not liked me since I’ve been on there,” Dickerhoof told Ashland Times-Gazette sports editor Dusty Sloan following his 2008 resignation at Hillsdale.
“I heard through the grapevine that it (being non-renewed) was going to happen to me … It all came down to a political action of the school board.”
“I needed a change,” Dickerhoof says now.
“I’d won over 300 games, but I was getting burned out. Plus, my wife had some health problems, so I said I was done.”
Dickerhoof was out of coaching for two years. But the passion for the game never went away.
“I was missing it, and my wife, who was a jockette herself and played softball at Akron (University) knew it,” Dickerhoof said.
“That was a hard two years. It was tough. My wife would say, ‘You want to go watch some games, don’t you?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah I do.’ And that’s what we did. We started going and watching (softball) games.”
With a resume like his, Dickerhoof could have landed at much bigger schools with well-established softball programs. Instead he ended up at a tiny Hancock County school on the other side of the state.
It brings to mind the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where Jim (Gene Wilder) says to Bart (Cleavon Little): “What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”
“I have a close friend who is a close friend of Mr. (Rod) Russell (Vanlue superintendent). That’s how I heard about the opening,” Dickerhoof said.
“I’m thinking, ‘Vanlue? Where the heck is Vanlue?’
“They said I should take a drive over, so I did. And when I came to Vanlue I fell in love with the place.
“I felt like I was back in the 20s again because the building is immaculate. It’s gorgeous inside. I mean, the building is well kept up. People have no idea, seriously. I was astounded.”
Something about Vanlue took Dickerhoof back to his roots.
“I was a farm boy raised on a small farm out in Middlebranch, just north of Canton,” Dickerhoof said. “Coming here felt like coming home. I just felt this was the place for me, and this is what I had to do.”
Ray Dickerhoof the science teacher has been rejuvenated.
“Before, I was teaching the same subject six or seven times a day. It was the same thing over and over and over,” Dickerhoof said. “By the end of the day, I was getting burned out. I had to write stuff down to make sure I told the kids about it.
“Here, every class is different, everything is different. I am the science teacher and I’m teaching all levels of science. I struggled with that my first year. I was staying up late at night, my head was spinning. But they kept telling me it would get better and it has. Last year was a good year, and this year I think things are rolling. I enjoy that. That’s part of me being me.”
Ray Dickerhoof the softball coach has been rejuvenated as well.
In the 49-year history of the Blanchard Valley Conference, Vanlue has won only five league championships. All came in boys or girls basketball, and two of the five were shared titles.
The last BVC title Vanlue earned was a boys basketball championship during the 1990-91 season.
With less than 100 students in the high school, numbers are always a factor in Vanlue’s efforts to field competitive athletic teams. Still, Vanlue was 11-16 in Dickerhoof’s first year as head coach and 15-10 last year and in contention for a possible BVC title much of the season.
Graduation and injuries have played a role in the Wildcats’ 6-13 record this season. But a telling number is that from an athletic pool of around 31 high school girls, Dickerhoof had 20 come out for softball.
The way Dickerhoof sees it, the teaching doesn’t stop in the classroom.
“My passion is here teaching these girls and showing them what the game is all about,” he says.
“I’ve been fortunate with where I’ve been and what I’ve been able to do. I think I’ve been able to pass that along to my students and these athletes … and it’s starting to rub off.”
Dickerhoof comes across as exuberant, upbeat and positive. But there’s another word he uses to describe his coaching style, a style that’s been adapting over the years.
“I’m still what I call ‘gruff,’ because it’s love and being rough, too,” Dickerhoof said.
“The girls understand that. They know they might get chewed out now and then, but they also get praised and they get loved. It’s like having children. They’re my kids in school; they’re my kids on the ball diamond. And like anything else when you’re raising children you pat them on the back and say ‘good job,’ but there are also times when you say, ‘What’d you do that for? You know better than that!’ so they learn right from wrong.
“The way I coach would not have worked 10 years ago. You need to change with the times. The main thing is, don’t ever be phony. Just be yourself. The kids know I wear my emotions on my sleeve. They know I’ll laugh with them, I’ll shed a tear with them … that’s just how you have to be.”
Dickerhoof let that be known the minute he arrived.
“When I first got here, I noticed their uniforms were a little tacky,” he said. “So I went out and bought them a whole new set, white tops and white pants.
“Last year we did a breast cancer awareness game. For that one I bought pink shirts for all the girls, and their mothers.
“I’m not in this for the money. I’m not in this for the glory. I just feel if you’re going to do something, you need to do it right. I’ve always been that way.”
Last year’s breast cancer awareness game had a special meaning. Dickerhoof’s wife, Lori, a registered nurse in the Cleveland Clinic’s surgical unit, is also a former patient there. She is a breast cancer survivor, and Dickerhoof says she continues “to deal with other cancer issues.”
That factors into a kind of make-the-most-of-the-moment philosophy for Dickerhoof, who owns a home in Wooster, but rents an apartment in Carey so he can teach and coach at Vanlue during the week.
“It’s been a little tough being away from home, away from family,” Dickerhoof says.
“Basically I’m commuting back and forth on weekends, but my wife and I, we’ve probably communicated more in less time than we ever have.
“As soon as I get home we sit down and we talk, we’ll go for a drive, we’ll go out to eat. We have an RV and we do RV’ing in the summertime ….
“We’ve done more in the last three, four years than we have in the last 20, and that’s huge. We’re making the most of the time we have, and people need to realize that because you never know how much time you have left.
“I tell these girls you never know when it might be your last swing of the bat, or the last time you ever field and throw the ball. There are no guarantees in life, so you make the most of it every chance you get.”
If that means making just a little difference at a little school in the middle of northwestern Ohio, Dickerhoof figures that’s worth whooping and hollering about.
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