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Steve McCleary retires as head softball coach at Catonsville High

Catonsville senior Callie McCleary stops on third base while her dad and head coach Steve McCleary watches the next batter in the Comets' 15-2 win on senior day in 2016. McCleary retired from coaching the Comets on Nov. 1.
Catonsville senior Callie McCleary stops on third base while her dad and head coach Steve McCleary watches the next batter in the Comets' 15-2 win on senior day in 2016. McCleary retired from coaching the Comets on Nov. 1. (Staff photo by Brian Krista)

Since 2004, the name McCleary has been a familiar one on the Catonsville High softball diamond.

Sisters Caitlin (2007 graduate), Kristin (2010) and Callie (2016) all played there and their father, Steve McCleary, coached the Comets from 2011 through 2020.

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McCleary was the varsity head coach for the past seven years after serving as an assistant to Bill Nelson for his first three years.

When the spring season, which is currently scheduled to begin with practices starting April 17 and games on May 7, McCleary will be an interested fan and away from the third base coaching box where one of his favorite strategies was calling for a bunt with runners on first and third.

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McCleary made the decision to retire officially on Nov. 1, but he had a feeling this would be has last season much earlier.

“I kind of projected this a couple years ago, but I wanted to make sure the program is still at a high level,” said McCleary, whose teams finished over .500 each of the past five seasons. “I wanted to walk out of there when there was still a lot of talent there and a lot of enthusiasm.”

“It’s all coming together for my wife and me,” said McCleary, who is also retiring from his job as a contract coordinator for BGE on March 31, 2021.

Even though he knew this day was coming, he was a little hesitant when he sent to official message to athletic director Rich Hambor.

“Rich told me to let him know Nov. 1 and I kind of went over the whole process again and my kids didn’t think I should retire,” McCleary said. “I finally looked at it either way and when I finally had the email set up to send to Rich, it took me like five times to hit send.”

McCleary plans to spend his free time fishing and relaxing at the beach, but he won’t be a stranger at Comet games.

“I told Rich I will always be around,” McCleary said. “I know these kids and I will go watch them because I’m a big softball fan. If they ever need anything, I’ll do whatever.”

Along with assistants Kerry Burns and Will Sauble the Comets were successful on and off the field.

“These are great kids. They are very smart kids and they all have high average GPAs,” McCleary said. “They never give you a problem. They have established themselves in the county as being a team that won with class and they lost with class.”

When thinking back on some of the top players he has coached, he mentioned Nikki Beautz, Erin Kreis, Sammi Sisolak, Deanna Delaney, Donya’Truesdale, Amber Lally, Akirra Pullen, Alleshia Pullen and Jess Lowe.

Sisolak is a senior at Catonsville this year.

She was deprived of her junior year because the COVID-19 pandemic halted sports activities a day before the Comets were to compete in a preseason tournament with Manchester Valley, Glen Burnie and North County.

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Catonsville head coach Steve McCleary coaches third base during the Class 4A North Region Section 1 girls softball final loss to Howard.
Catonsville head coach Steve McCleary coaches third base during the Class 4A North Region Section 1 girls softball final loss to Howard. (Steve Ruark / For Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Coming off a 15-5 season when the Comets lost to Towson, 4-0, in the Baltimore County championship game, McCleary had high hopes for his talented 2020 squad.

“It took us a few years to do it, but last year we finally had filled as high level a schedule as we had ever had,” said McCleary, noting private school powers Archbishop Spalding, Mount de Sales and McDonogh were on the schedule. “We were playing everybody and we never got to play that schedule.”

Over the years, McCleary did coach in some memorable games, including a 15-1 win over Carroll County champion Manchester Valley.

“We went up and played Manchester Valley and they had just won their county and we just put everything together and we were just phenomenal that game and they had good players, they were a good team,” said McCleary, noting Kreis and Sisolak shared pitching duties.

Another highlight was a 16-2 victory over Patapsco on senior day.

His daughter Callie was the only senior honored and she had three hits and scored three runs while playing third base.

“I could tell he was a little more emotional, but not much different,” said Callie after the game.

McCleary, a 1978 Catonsville High graduate, started coaching in the Catonsville travel leagues in 2002 and has coached his daughters many times, but Callie was the only one he coached in high school.

He was the assistant in her first two seasons and the head coach in her final two.

After she graduated, he stayed around four more years.

“The reason (for retiring) has nothing to do with the fact that my kids are no longer there,” he said. “It’s a little bit easier to coach when you kids aren’t there.”

In addition to the athletes, he will miss assistant coaches Kerry Burns and Will Sauble.

“One thing that we did and it wasn’t just me, it was Kerry, Billy, Will and Rich, we went in there and built a program,” he said. "I was absolutely blessed to have Kerry and Will as assistants. Kerry is probably as knowledgeable guy in this area as far as coaching elite girls at this level. He helped me many times.

Burns is also a Catonsville High graduate, who pitched for the 1976 Comets state champion baseball team — the only one is school history.

The Catonsville softball team has never won a state title, but they did reach the finals in 2003 and 1978.

One of the things the Comet coaching staff took pride in was keeping the athletes on Paul Harris’ JV squad in tune with what the varsity was doing.

“We kind of decided we were doing everything all the same, all the signs and plays, so when you come up, everything is the same, so you really don’t have a learning curve, it’s the old Oriole Way,” McCleary said.

The future looks bright for whoever takes over as the new coach.

“Actually, it’s an attractive job,” McCleary said. “This job here now for the next three, four or five years is a good job.”

Hambor was well aware of McCleary because he was the baseball coach before taking over as athletic director in 2018-19.

“It was really nice to be able to come in and have such an established coach already in the softball program,” said Hambor, who turned over the baseball coaching reins to Eric Warm. “Becoming an AD made it awesome to know both of those fields were taken care of in every way.”

Hambor said there is no time limit for the hiring of a new coach.

“We are not going to wait forever,” Hambor said. “I know the girls are going to miss him a lot, but they also want to have somebody there, we are going to do it right, but do it in due time. It’s obviously huge shoes to fill.”

When that time comes McCleary knows what he will miss the most.

“I always liked the game itself, practices can get tough, but I love the competition, but as much as anything else just the interactions with the kids,” McCleary said. “They are pretty cool and they crack me up with some of the stuff they come up with.”

He can now enjoy those moments watching from the stands.

“I told Rich you always hear ‘Once a Comet, always a Comet,’ and I’ll always be around.”

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