North Carroll softball coach named Maryland's best

In 13 years as the varsity softball coach at North Carroll High School, Lloyd Ford has guided the Panthers to a 202-80 record and three appearances in the state finals.

It seemed only a matter of time before he would earn a major coaching award.

It came earlier this month when Ford was named the 2012 Maryland State Softball Coach of the Year by the National Federation of High School Coaches Association.

The NHFS Coaches Awards Program honors active coaches in the top 10 boys and girls sports, based on the number of participants. Coaches who earn statewide recognition are now eligible for sectional and national level awards.

But Ford isn't thinking about any possible future awards. In his typical low-key way, he is quietly enjoying his statewide honor.

"It's labeled a coach of the year award, but it's more of a cumulative thing," said Ford, the Panthers junior varsity coach for six years before taking over the varsity in 2000. "Other coaches had a better year last year, but this award is more about your body of work. Still, it's nice to see the reactions of other people, both here and around the county. It's something to be proud of, but it's the kids who created it with their success on the field."

The Panthers were already established as one of the state's top softball programs when Ford took over. Since the state tournament began in 1976, the Hampstead school has won six crowns in 12 title-game appearances.

Under Ford's guidance, North Carroll's softball program has remained one of the state's best. Ford's first state finalist team was in 2002, and his teams returned to College Park for playoff games in 2009 and 2010. Ford's Panthers reached the state semifinal round in 2001, 2003 and 2011. Last spring, North Carroll reached the Class 1A West Region final before losing, 5-4, to eventual undefeated state champion Mountain Ridge.

"Unfortunately, we've always had to talk with the girls at the end of the season after a loss," Ford said. "My standard line has always been, 'A whole lot of teams would trade places with you now'. To me, the opportunity to play at the University of Maryland has been a highlight. It was a really neat experience to be in that kind of setting. One of our goals every year is to get to that level and reach those team achievements, and we've been fortunate to have our share."

While Ford's teams have yet to win a state title, he was very proud of the statewide Sportsmanship Award the Panthers earned in 2009.

"That's about the kids on the field, the coaching staff, and the fans who followed us," said Ford, a Hampstead resident who has been teaching social studies at North Carroll since the fall of 1983. "I'm as proud of that award as anything, and that would be right there even if we managed to win a state championship before I'm done."

While Ford has certainly done his part to keep North Carroll rolling, he recognizes the accomplishments of others who helped build the school's softball legacy.

"Phil Bonnell, Linda Richards, Jim Boesler, and Rich Harvey made this program what it is," said Ford, recalling North Carroll's earlier coaches. "Plus, the feeder programs have made success a constant."

Ford's approach begins with stressing the importance of a team effort to each of his players.

"That team concept can translate into life itself," he said. "Beyond the sport, I always tell them that it's family first. Then come your academics, because they are student-athletes and the 'student' has to come first. Some of our players have gone on to play at the next level, but the majority of them just went on to get their degrees. And then the third priority is softball."

Working with young players is the reason that Ford got into coaching. He still feels the same way.

"Coaching is a teaching opportunity," he said. "Any coach will tell you that the combination of working in the sport that you love and working with the kids are the most rewarding aspects. One of the more gratifying things is when our alumni come back. A good number of alumni played here before I even started coaching, and I see them at our state championships and semifinals. There's a consistency within the program that keeps that connection going."

Ford's softball family includes the Stitely siblings. Samantha Stitely was a key player on the squads that went to consecutive state title games in 2009 and 2010. She was joined by her sisters, Michaela and Alex, on the 2011 team that reached the state semifinals. Michaela Stitely, a senior, and junior Alex Stitely, a junior, are members of the 2013 squad.

"I knew from my sister (Samantha) that he worked the team hard, and that I would enjoy playing for him," said Michaela Stitely, an outfielder and 2013 co-captain. "He obviously was doing something right, because we always had a good team. He's been a great coach and taught me a lot during my four years here. He keeps us motivated by setting high goals and expectations. We don't want to disappoint him, so we work hard to achieve the goals that he has set for us."

His players recognize that Ford's influence makes them more than better players.

"He expects us to be leaders on and off the field," said Michaela Stitely. "Coach wants us to be good role models and set the pace for the rest of the team."

Ford's knowledge of the game also makes his players more confident.

"He really knows what he's talking about," said senior catcher Gina Tolomei. "Coach Ford has this mind-set of what he wants to do and what he wants us to accomplish. He's helped me understand the game and become a better leader."

Ford, whose wife, Deena, is a teacher at neighboring Manchester Valley High, watched his two sons play for North Carroll. Brett, the oldest of the three Ford children, was a basketball and tennis standout at North Carroll who went on to play four years of tennis and one season of basketball at Misericordia University. He is now a graduate assistant in the sports information office at Castleton State College in Vermont. Evan, a top tennis player at North Carroll, now attends York Technical Institute. The Fords' youngest, Regan, is a freshman playing basketball at Manchester Valley.

But before he rushed off to Westminster High for his daughter's basketball game last week, Ford's thoughts were already turning to another season of coaching other people's children.

"The quality of young ladies that have come through this program is tremendous," he said. "I couldn't handpick better people, and that's a reference to their families, to the community, and to this school environment. North Carroll is a great place to work, and a great place to coach. This is home."

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