Madison’s Kenzi Saunders (19) is congratulated by coach Doug Pemberton after hitting a triple during a Division III sectional final against Carlisle at Fenwick on May 15, 2017. The Mohawks won 3-1, giving Pemberton what turned out to be the final victory of his prep coaching career. He died of a heart attack just over a month later. GREG LYNCH/STAFF

Prep softball: Mohawks carrying ‘Coach P’ with them this season

The senior catcher said the Mohawks will have the late Doug Pemberton in their hearts whenever they take the field this season.

“I know he was only there for a year, but he made such an impact on me and all the girls,” Kovscek said of Pemberton, who died of a heart attack not long after leading Madison to a 22-9 record and a spot in the Division III district finals last spring.

“And us returning are wanting this year to be the year for him, playing for him. The younger kids, we’ve been telling them that, and they’re taking it seriously also. Coach P’s going to be watching over us.”

Pemberton, a first-time head coach at the varsity level last year, passed away suddenly June 24 at the age of 51. The Mohawks’ season ended with a 5-0 loss to Springfield Northwestern on May 19.

Madison High School senior catcher Jackie Kovscek talks about the upcoming softball season and late Mohawks coach Doug Pemberton, who died last June.

Dean Howard was Pemberton’s varsity assistant with the Mohawks after they coached together with the Preble County Elite. Howard, noting that Pemberton was his wife’s cousin, is now Madison’s head coach.

“I always told him if he got a head job, I’d come and help. That’s how I got down here last year,” Howard said. “I was good just being his assistant, then that happened and they asked if I’d take over. I said yes because I’ve got unfinished business here. We were always saying, ‘We’re going to state,’ so we’re going to try to continue that dream. I still think we can do that with the girls we’ve got.”

The Mohawks’ season-opening Saturday doubleheader against Arcanum has been postponed by the wet, white weather forecast. Madison is scheduled to host Tri-Village on Monday.

Howard said that first game without Pemberton will be a tough one to get through. He can still clearly recall the day his good friend died and the call he got from Pemberton’s daughter, Tuesday.

“It blew me away. I didn’t have anything to say,” Howard said. “I had to apologize to her later saying that I was sorry I had nothing to say. It just floored me. As far as I knew, he was healthy, no problems. It just happened.”

Kovscek was with the Madison basketball team at a summer event when she got the news.

“It was unbelievable, heartbreaking,” she said. “The week before, we had a team cookout at my house. We swam and stuff to celebrate the season. He was fine. He was talking about next season. He was talking about our future plans. It was all just a shock.”

Howard said the team will honor Pemberton with a set of wings and “CP” (for Coach P) on their helmets. He will have those things on his hat as well.

On the field, don’t look for the Mohawks to change much playing under Howard. His coaching mind-set has always mirrored Pemberton’s.

“Coach Dean is just a little bit more soft-spoken. Coach P was loud,” Kovscek said with a smile. “Coach Dean has really stepped up this year. He’s never been a head coach, and I’m really impressed with how he’s been handling things and running things. He’s continuing Coach P’s legacy.”

Howard, 53, is a 1983 National Trail graduate who was an assistant at his alma mater for four seasons before joining Pemberton at Madison. He works for Tobias Electric in Eaton.

Madison softball coach Dean Howard

On the field, the Mohawks are a combination of youth and experience. Kovscek and Syanna Beachler are seniors, and Jenna O’Hair is a junior. The remaining 11 players are sophomores and freshmen.

Pitching ace Carly Metcalf transferred to Middletown, but six starters are back: Kovscek behind the plate (.298, 15 RBIs), Beachler at first base (.304, 23 RBIs), O’Hair at shortstop (.552, 24 RBIs, 21 stolen bases), sophomore Ally King in center field (.385, 20 RBIs, 22 steals), sophomore Lilly Dennis in right field (.284) and sophomore Kenzi Saunders at third base (.404, 36 RBIs).

“We’re always aggressive,” said Howard, who’s being assisted by his daughter, Nicki McKee. “We don’t sit back and wait until it happens. We make it happen. We’ve got plenty of speed.”

Making their varsity debuts in the pitching circle will be sophomore right-hander Sabrina Dolph and freshman lefty Taylor Johnson.

“Taylor’s more of a hard thrower, Sabrina’s more placement,” Howard said. “I’m not going to lie to you … losing our pitcher from last year is big. But we’ve still got the same defense behind these pitchers, and it’s pretty much the same offense.

“We lost some key players, but the ones coming in are as good if not better. It’s a good group of girls that works hard. We’ve still got that dream.”

Kovscek, who plans to attend Northern Kentucky University and try to be a walk-on player for the Norse, said the Mohawks should improve throughout the season.

“There are a lot of inexperienced players who haven’t played high school before. I remember my freshman year — I was scared to death,” Kovscek said. “But I feel like once we get a few games underneath our belt, we’ll be going at it. We’re all in and all together. The goal’s still state, and that’s what we’re working for.”