Joe Bates took over a Princeton softball program that from the outside looked to be in bad shape.

The Tigresses only won five games the year before and had never won a regional championship in program history.

Bates saw a program on the rise.

“I know the team didn’t have a lot of wins last year, but looking at the schedule and results, there were a number of games that were one-run games,” Bates said. “They were real close a year ago to coming out with a lot better record.

“Even though the program had struggled for a couple years in a row, the arrow was starting to point up.”

The arrow’s not just pointing up anymore.

Bates, who is a long-time travel ball coach and a former PHS assistant, guided the Tigresses to a 15-11 record — a 10-win improvement — and the first softball regional title in school history.

“He made sure we were focused and ready to play each game, but he also let us have fun so we didn’t hate the sport,” freshman McKenzie Hecht said. “If he saw something we needed to work on during a game, he made sure we worked on that during practice. He knew all of his players and what their strengths and weaknesses were and used that to our advantage.

“I think he did a great job stepping into a new role as a school ball coach instead of a travel coach.”

For all he accomplished this season, Bates is the 2019 NewsTribune Softball Coach of the Year.

“We tried to have a positive outlook on what we were doing and we believed in what we were doing,” Bates said. “It started to manifest itself and we had some results early on so there was no reason to believe we couldn’t do it. It’s a competitive group of girls who are not afraid of working hard. It brought about some good results.

“I know this is considered an award for me, and I do appreciate that, but I know there are a lot of moving parts and I was a pretty small part of it. It took the entire program to have the turnaround we did.”

Bates and the Tigresses got off to a hot start by winning their first nine games.

However, then came a rough stretch where Princeton dropped six consecutive games.

“We started 9-0 then we had a really difficult stretch for various reasons,” Bates said. “We sat and chatted for a while about what it would take to be successful. It came down to team. I shared with the girls we were in a position where we could go up or down and if we could continue to work hard in practices and games and pull together as a team, we’d be successful. But if we weren’t going to support each other or play as a team, success is unlikely.

“It wasn’t a 180-degree turnaround overnight. We still had some challenges, but we kept grinding.”

His players took his message to heart.

“We talked about keeping a positive energy,” senior Kendra Cain said. “There was a little bit of time we’d be bitter with each other and he told us we had to remain positive and focus on all the good things that have happened and if we keep our energy up, we’ll be able to improve moving forward.

“I really think that helped us because it turned some of our mindsets around.”

The Tigresses took a positive mindset into the postseason and were able to make history.

As a No. 5 seed, Princeton upset regional host and No. 4 seed Alleman 6-0 in the semifinals before edging No. 1 Erie-Prophetstown 4-3 in the championship.

“For the regional final, I went in confident because I sensed the girls were confident, but not overconfident,” Bates said. “I could tell they were very excited and willing to work very, very hard to achieve that regional championship. We played our best game of the season. There were numerous plays that were very, very close. We made some excellent plays and we needed every single one of them. Had any one of them gone the other way, it might have been the difference between winning and losing.

“I was real happy with the enthusiasm and team approach to the game. When it turned out favorably, it was just very rewarding. I felt we had come a long ways.”

The Tigresses success came with a few veteran players mixed with a talented freshman class.

“I think he combined a really good group of talent and was able to figure out where exactly each person could play to make us all work together as a team,” Cain said. “I think once we finally got into the groove of a solid lineup, it really helped us too. … He really focused on making sure everybody felt welcomed. It didn’t matter how old you were or how many years you’d been playing.

“I think he had a really great first year. I’m looking forward to seeing what all they can accomplish in the next couple years.”

Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at sports@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.

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