BY JAMES D. CIMBUREK firstname.lastname@example.org, Yankton Press and Dakotan
It is not often that the coach of a 6-22 team shares in a league's Coach of the Year honors. Then again, not too many coaches have had a season like Mount Marty softball coach Albert Fernandez.
Fernandez, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last fall and underwent months of treatments before the season, was recognized by his peers as the Great Plains Athletic Conference's co-Coach of the Year, sharing the honor with Troy Baker of league champion Hastings.
"It's an amazing testament to the strength of what Albert did," said GPAC commissioner Corey Westra. "This goes beyond wins and losses. It's about human strength."
Fernandez had the respect of his GPAC peers prior to the season, having earned league Coach of the Year honors in 2011.
"Albert has always been widely respected." Westra said. "He does it the right way."
When he was first diagnosed, Fernandez had said that he fully intended to be back in time for the opening practices of the season. Despite being weakened by both the cancer and its treatment, he missed just one doubleheader the entire season.
"It's very important to the healing process," said Westra, who said that his father had also been treated for cancer. "When you can put something in front of you and you can reach it, it helps you, helps your cause."
He had also hoped to keep the focus on the field, as senior catcher Gabi Cardenas discovered when she and assistant coach Amanda Volgarino, a former player for Fernandez, went to visit him in the hospital.
"It was hard because we didn't know what was going on. I was scared," she said. "Amanda and I went to visit him the day he got out of surgery, and he said, 'Aren't you supposed to be at practice?'
"He tried to avoid dwelling on it. He was there for us. He didn't like us to cater to him. He wanted us to keep working."
The team started slowly — a combination of its youth and a sporadic schedule caused by this spring's weather — but finished with a flourish. MMC played 10 games — five doubleheaders — on the final six days of the season, winning five of them, including one over GPAC runner-up Morningside, which made the NAIA Opening Round. MMC also won league games over GPAC tourney teams Nebraska Wesleyan and Briar Cliff, then ended the season with a sweep of tourney qualifier Dakota Wesleyan.
It was MMC's first conference sweep in two years, and MMC will open the 2014 season riding a three-game win streak.
"I was so proud of them for how they finished," Fernandez said. "It shows there is a lot of potential on this team."
MMC athletic director Chuck Iverson felt that Fernandez and the team handled the season admirably.
"Talk about a tough year. He's working through his issues, and then it was just a tough spring for softball and baseball," he said. "I was so impressed with how the team finished the season out. I'm so proud of the effort that he and the team showed."
Freshman pitcher Jessica Finch helped the team get past some of the "little things" that can distract a squad.
"I think it pushed us a lot," she said. "If somebody was whining about some little thing, we only had to look at Coach to put things in perspective."
Junior outfielder Jamie Gregory said the experiences of this season will stay with the team for a long time.
"Now that we've been through this, next year will be 10 times better," she said. "We're going to be more successful, and we'll have a chance to go to the conference tournament."
Photo from Yankton Press and Dakotan