By Rob Patrick
Funny how a heart attack can change one’s perspective on things.
It can be enough to make you consider new opportunities, new challenges, even if it means leaving your hometown.
Debbie Stepp grew up in Wynne. She left long enough to attend Evangel College in Springfield, Mo., where she played volleyball. She returned home to teach and eventually coach volleyball and softball at good old Wynne High while raising her two daughters. Those girls are grown now. Her oldest graduated from UCA with a Masters degree and lives in Little Rock; her youngest is a senior at Williams Baptist.
But, in November of 2008, four days after running a half marathon in Mountain Home, Stepp was running in Wynne and was stricken by a heart attack.
“I kind of started evaluating my life and what I might want to do,” she related. “We ended up having a great season at Wynne.”
In fact, the Lady Yellowjackets won the Class 5A State championship over defending champion Nettleton. But more about that in a moment.
“Usually, you remember the last thing that happens,” Stepp continued. “And I figured it’d be nice to remember that the last thing at Wynne for me as a coach would be a State championship team.”
And so, she’s leaving after 23 years at Wynne, 17 as an assistant and head coach.On Monday, June 15, Stepp was officially hired as the new high school softball coach at Bryant, replacing Lisa Stanfield who led the team to three Class 7A State finals in her six years.
Reached on Tuesday while she was helping out at a food pantry, Stepp related, “I’m really excited, really excited.”
Her enthusiasm is obvious and infectious.
As softball coach only, Stepp noted, she’ll gratefully be able to watch her daughter play her senior season of volleyball at Williams Baptist.
Since starting as head coach in 2003, Stepp’s softball teams went 137-51 overall with a conference mark of 65-33. They made it to State every year except one. Several girls earned scholarships along the way, most notably perhaps, Layne McGuirt who now plays for the University of Arkansas.
As a volleyball coach, by the way, Stepp was 145-43 overall, 88-4 in league play including a winning streak at one point of 60 in a row. Her teams won six conference titles and was a State runner-up.
“I know what it’s like to be first loser,” she declared, “and I know what it’s like to be the champion and I like the champion a lot better.”
“I’ve heard really good things about Bryant,” she said. “We actually played three or four years ago when they came up to the Nettleton tournament. It was sleeting and it was one of those controversial things. They decided to stop the semifinal game (with Bryant leading) then start it back over. We ended up winning but there was a bat broke. It was just in terrible weather conditions.
“I knew then they had a great team and I know that their coach has done a wonderful job there,” she continued. “I’ve heard nothing but really, really good things about the school, first, and then about the program and they’ve played for a State championship. They’ve been there, they’ve been in the semifinals and I think the State championship has been what’s kind of elusive to them. Hopefully, I can lead them to that ultimate goal.
“Somebody asked me, what about the pressure, because they only lost three players,” related Stepp. “And I said, ‘Pressure is one of those words in our society that we misuse. When people think of pressure, they think of failure. When I think of pressure, I think I need pressure on my gas cap to keep the gas in; I need pressure on that jar of pickles to keep them fresh. Pressure’s not a bad thing.”
You want to talk work ethic? How’s this:
“I knew we had the pitching at Wynne and we had the defense but we couldn’t score runs,” she said. “We worked in the fall, in the off-season, trying to figure out what we could do so these girls could see that ball and hit it.
“I feel like I’m the kind of person that doesn’t just say, well, I’m okay with status quo,” she added. “No, if we’ve got the goal to win a State championship, then we’ve got to figure out what to do to get there. And, once you get there, what can we do to win.”
During their title run, the Lady Jackets outscored their opponents 20-1.
“In the State championship game, Nettleton out-hit us but we played the short game and won,” she recalled.
Motivation is obviously vital to Stepp. She gained quite a bit of notoriety for “the worm story.”
“I’m a big motivator,” she acknowledged. “I had four sophomores, four freshman and one senior on the field. And I could tell, they were really nervous. I don’t care what people say, the State championship is not like any other game. You’re playing for that gold trophy and a ring.
“I knew the girls needed some distraction. I told them, ‘I’ve had this story that I’ve been waiting to tell. I’ve been waiting for the right team to tell it, so I’m going to tell it to you before we play in the championship.”
So she pulled her team together on a hill overlooking Bogle Park at the U of A where they would play the State title game. She told them this story, one that longtime Baylor football coach Grant Teaff used to tell:
“There were these two Eskimos fishing. One was catching fish and the other one wasn’t. The one Eskimo says, ‘Why are you catching fish and I’m not?’ The guy mumbles, ‘You got to keep your worms warm.’ The guy says, ‘What are you sayin’?’ ‘You got to keep your worms warm.’ He says, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ So he pulls a worm out of his mouth and says, ‘You’ve got to keep your worms warm. Mine are warm, yours are frozen, so the fish are biting mine, not yours.’
“I couldn’t have done this a couple of years ago with my senior-laden team with Layne and them,” she noted. “It wouldn’t have worked with them, but it worked for this team. I actually had worms in my mouth when I told the story. I had to work my tongue over to get the worms to settle down. They thought I had sunflower seeds in my mouth but I had three worms. And they were actually fishing worms, they weren’t gummy worms.
“So I told the story and pulled the worm out of my mouth, the girls went crazy,” Stepp continued. “I told them, ‘You know, during the season, you’ve done things that have not been easy, they’ve been distasteful, especially when we’ve been running or something. But now, here we are. We’ve prepared you. You’ve got to get between those white lines and execute. While you’re executing, I’m going to keep the worms warm for you because that’s all I can do.’ I wanted the girls to know we’d done all we could, the coaches, and it was now their turn.”
The team built a 5-1 lead going into the last inning. Stepp admitted she didn’t keep the worms in her mouth the whole game but, with two out, she put one back in her mouth, called timeout and approached the pitcher’s circle where her freshman pitcher Claire Clark awaited.
“I said, ‘Claire, what’ve we got to do?’ She said, ‘Coach, one more out.’ I said, ‘One more out and what’re you going to hear?’ She said, ‘I’m going to hear the roar of the crowd.’ I said, ‘But we can’t get that until we get one more out.’ And I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ The catcher goes, ‘Coach, you’re not going to eat that worm now are you?’ I said, ‘No,’ and I pulled the worm out of my mouth and said, ‘I’m going to eat it when this game’s over.’
And she did.
There was, of course, the traditional celebratory dogpile afterwards and, though it was their first State title, the Lady Jackets knew what to do, thanks to Coach Stepp.
“The day before, we’d stopped at Hendrix and practiced and my last drill was the dogpile,” she related. “I said, ‘I told y’all that I would prepare you for every situation. When we win, this is what we’re going to do.’ I knew we would be visitors and I told Claire, ‘You’ve just struck out the last batter and we just won the game so now we’re going to dogpile.’ And I made them practice it.
“They were like, ‘Coach, what are we doing?’ I said, ‘We’re practicing the dogpile.’ They said, ‘We’ve never done this before.’ And I said, ‘Well, have you ever played in a State championship before? No. I want you prepared.’
“I wanted them to know that I believed. You know, we’re going to practice this dogpile because we’re going to be doing one tomorrow.”
Did we mention she’s thorough?
“That was just the kind of team that I had,” she explained. “I knew what kind of motivation they needed. It just depends on each team. I believe in motivation. I believe the girls have to want it inside. It has to come from inside but what can I do to help — and I’m passionate myself, so passionate about life, especially after the heart attack, and their academics and about them going beyond Bryant High School and them having the best experience ever when it comes to the softball field.
“I don’t know if it’ll be worms with Bryant,” Stepp concluded. “You’ve got to learn the personality of the team and that’s my job, learn their personalities and know what they need to be motivated.”
Fired up yet?