When the Chesapeake High principal hired Dennis Thiele to coach the school’s softball team back in 1984, he made it clear he expected to see results.
Thiele, who never lacked for confidence or bravado, responded that if he didn’t turn the program around in four years, he would resign.
That task was easier said than done considering Thiele took over a team that had posted a 3-15 record the previous season.
In contemplating how best to go about the rebuild, Thiele realized he needed to get involved with the feeder system. He started coaching a youth team in the Lake Shore program and stayed with that group of girls through high school.
“I knew I needed to go out there and work with those 9- and 10-year-olds. I figured by the time they were 14 and freshmen at Chesapeake they would know my system and my coaching style,” said Thiele, who led the Lake Shore 13-14-year-old team to a runner-up finish at the Pony National Tournament.
That nucleus of players would make history and lead Chesapeake softball to all sorts of glory.
Becky Thiele was the first player from that Lake Shore Spartans squad to arrive at Chesapeake and made varsity as a freshman. Natalie Black, Stacey Necessary, Tracy Starke and Nancy Yeager came in the next season and also went straight to varsity.
Those players formed the core of Chesapeake teams that set a Maryland record by capturing four straight state championships from 1990 to 1993. The Cougars were so dominant in 1992 and ‘93 they were ranked No. 1 nationally by USA Today.
“It was a magical time. That juggernaut came together and we really got things rolling. We were very fortunate to have a steady stream of great players come through,” said Thiele, who directed an immediate turnaround by leading Chesapeake to a 12-6 mark in his first season at the helm.
Needless to say, Thiele did not need to resign after his fourth season. He actually wound up remaining in the role for 15 years, compiling a phenomenal 248-61 record and a total of five state titles. The Cougars also claimed six East Region championships and seven county crowns.
Thiele, who lived in Pasadena for more than four decades, will be inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame next month. He will be the second high school softball coach enshrined, joining longtime local rival Lynn Pitonzo of nearby Northeast High.
Thiele is the fourth product of the perennially powerful Chesapeake softball program to enter the Hall of Fame, following former Capital Gazette Player of the Year picks Amy Jakubowski and Lauren Gibson. Jakubowski and Gibson went on to enjoy outstanding college careers at Furman and Tennessee, respectively.
“Coaching softball at Chesapeake was some of the most fun I ever had. How many coaches get a chance to even come close to those types of team accomplishments?” Thiele said. “I feel proud and fortunate to have been their coach and to have enjoyed the success we had.
“Our girls were very determined and truly played with their heads and their hearts.”
Thiele grew up in western New York and attended Buffalo State Teachers College, which is where he met future wife Janet. They both wound up getting teaching jobs in Anne Arundel County: Dennis at Glen Burnie High and Janet at Jacobsville Elementary.
Thiele coached cross country and outdoor track and field at Glen Burnie for four years until Chesapeake opened in 1977. He moved to the new school on Mountain Road and wound up spending 32 years teaching technology education, serving as chairman of that department for a decade.
Thiele, who was a distance runner at Bishop Fallon High in Buffalo, was initially head coach of cross country at Chesapeake. He later switched to girls soccer, serving as assistant coach under Lin Sullivan for 21 years. Those two later reversed roles in the spring with Sullivan assisting Thiele with the softball program.
Thiele also served two separate stints totaling seven seasons as girls basketball coach at Chesapeake. In an oddity, there was one school year when Thiele was named Anne Arundel County Coach of the Year in three different sports. He got the honor in girls soccer because Sullivan was injured in an auto accident and missed most of the season.
Thiele, who never had a losing season in 15 seasons as Chesapeake softball coach, was named All-Metro Coach of the Year three times by The Baltimore Sun and twice by The Washington Post. He received the Bob Pascal Award for outstanding service to Anne Arundel County athletics in 1987.
Thiele was highly competitive, extremely aggressive and very intense. His attitude and style annoyed many of his fellow Anne Arundel softball coaches and his argumentative side upset area umpires.
In an era when Anne Arundel County was loaded with dominant windmiller pitchers, games between the top tier programs such as Chesapeake, Glen Burnie, Northeast, Old Mill and Severna Park were often won 1-0 or 2-0.
Thiele implemented a deep playbook of offensive and defensive schemes designed for various high-leverage situations. Knowing the importance of getting runners home from third base, he invented several previously unknown tactics for doing so.
Players that drew walks ran to first base and kept on going toward second. If the catcher threw the ball to second base, Thiele sent the runner from third home. He had players on first base attempt to steal second then purposefully stumble, often leading to a rundown that enabled the player on third to score.
Another trick involved players that drew walks running to first base even when the catcher did not drop the ball. Confused catchers threw the ball to first base even though they didn’t need to, giving Thiele another chance to send the runner from third home.
Those were just a few of Thiele’s tricks and many led to permanent rule changes.
“Every year I memorized the rulebook so I knew it thoroughly. A lot of times I knew the rules better than the umpires, which they didn’t like,” Thiele said. “I coached a certain way and probably rubbed some people the wrong way. I always fought for my players and my team.”
Thiele was beloved by those players because they knew he always had their backs. As a father of two daughters, Thiele understood the need to make the game enjoyable and always closed practices with fun activities.
After practicing aggressively running the bases, all the players got a “fantasy home run” in which they could round the bases any way they wanted. Former Cougars will always remember the “dizzy bat races” that were another end-of-practice staple. On rainy days, Thiele set up a Slip ‘N Slide and told the players they could slide any of four ways.
“My dad had a goofy side and he always wanted practice to end on a fun, positive note,” said Becky Thiele Jones, who did not hesitate when asked why her father was such a successful coach.
“My dad was thorough and always had the team prepared. He was a consistent and clear coach who was strict but fair. He was also a master strategist, always thinking three batters ahead,” she said.
Leaving a legacy
Don Ellenberger took over as Chesapeake softball coach in 2001, three years after Thiele retired. Every year when practice began on March 1, Thiele would stand at the top of the hill overlooking the Chesapeake softball diamond.
“I’d walk up there to talk to Dennis and he’d always remind me of the five state championships and say I would never match it,” Ellenberger said.
In some respects, Ellenberger surpassed Thiele — posting a 354-83 record during a 20-year tenure and leading the Cougars to nine state championship appearances. However, Thiele still has bragging rights because Chesapeake finished with three state titles under Ellenberger.
“Obviously, Dennis left a legacy that was difficult to follow. He set a high standard and that was a challenge to those of us who followed. You didn’t want the program to falter,” Ellenberger said.
Brittany Owen succeeded Ellenberger as head coach and one of her assistants is Tracy Starke Yeager, who has fond memories of the glory years of the early 1990s and speaks highly of Thiele.
Ellenberger attended a lot of Chesapeake softball games while Thiele was head coach and learned a lot about how to play “small ball.” Thiele believed strongly in putting the ball in play and moving runners along the base paths.
Thiele was also adept at finding crossover athletes, convincing many of the soccer and basketball players he coached to play the spring sport.
“Dennis worked very hard to establish Chesapeake softball as a state level program and put up some tremendous numbers,” Ellenberger said. “Dennis did a great job of getting his players to buy into the system.
“I know a lot of coaches didn’t like Dennis, but part of the reason was because he was thinking faster than everyone else about how to take advantage of the rules.”
When: Wednesday, Oct. 12
Where: DoubleTree Hotel, Annapolis
Tickets: $50 each; $500 for table of 10