Editor’s Note: This is part of a summer Q&A series in which every Wednesday sports writer Jared Bell will talk with local people in the sports news.
Just off Industrial Drive in La Salle, in the shadows of Interstate 80, sits an old mustard-colored steel building.
From the road, it doesn’t look like much, but inside is one of the area’s premier softball and baseball facilities.
The multi-purpose, shared building is the home away from home for Tom Finch and his daughter Jessica Heider, and over the past few years, it has become the training ground for the area’s top softball players.
Together, the father-daughter combination has worked with local hitters and pitchers, but the primary focus of their efforts has been developing, refining and improving star pitchers from across the NewsTribune’s coverage area.
The tandem has worked with a who’s who of the area’s star softball pitchers as they have coached L-P graduates Torie Bunzell, Hannah Huebbe, Kelsey Michelini and Ally Smith as well as current players such as St. Bede’s Lainie Schweickert, Putnam County’s Shelby Yepsen, Mendota’s Ashlyn Kennedy, L-P’s Brittany Zawacki and Brianna Zeman and Princeton’s Heidi James.
With the NewsTribune’s 2013 Softball Player of the Year and All-Area Teams to be announced Thursday, the NT caught up with Finch and Heider last Friday to discuss their lessons, the area’s pitching and how they have helped to turn the area into a softball powerhouse.
NewsTribune: What’s your background in softball?
Tom Finch: I started playing ASA when I was 18 and I traveled to play ASA men’s fast-pitch A League ball until I was 35. (Jessica) was drug around to all the ballparks along with my other daughter, Beth. She was very good, too, but Jessica just couldn’t get enough of it. Day and night, she wanted to pitch, so we knew a coach in the Quad Cities who I consider the best — Dale Matlick — so I went with him and we worked with him all the time (when we lived in Aledo).
NT: How did you get into giving pitching lessons?
Finch: Hannah Huebbe would’ve been about the first girl we took all the way, and when I say all the way I mean we took her from a small girl all the way through college where we helped them develop all their pitches — riseball, changeup, curveball and as much of a fastball as we can get out of them. After she got out, we started with neighbor girls and it just floated into town, and then we started doing lessons.
Over the years, they’ve come through here to channel out in pitching. Pitching is pitching, but to take the next step in pitching it takes learning all the spin balls properly.
NT: Do you each work with the same players or separate the players?
Finch: There is some back and forth, but she kind of has her kids and I have mine. There are days where I’ll call her and say, ‘Hey, I can’t make it’ or she’ll call me. We have a few dads who like to float back and forth.
We both teach the same things, but I think there’s a little different attitude with the approach. Some might be a little more afraid of me and not so much her or she may bite into some girls. But these are lessons and we expect to work. It’s easy to weed out the ones real quick that don’t have it. We’re real truthful with the parents and tell them either their daughter’s got it or they don’t. There have been a few little girls who I’ve said, ‘Bring them back next year and I’ll try them again’ because I can’t teach them to pitch if they can’t play softball.
NT: So how do you determine who works with whom?
Jessica Heider: With some of the kids like Lainie, he started working with them and then I finished working with them once I got back from college. But really, he’s got more of the high school kids and I have more of the youth.
Finch: Now we’re getting into Ottawa. We have three girls from Ottawa who we work with that are coming on really good. But we have some girls from Amboy and Wyanet and Jessica had a girl from the Quad Cities.
NT: What makes a good softball pitcher? What are the key traits and characteristics?
Heider: There’s determination and obviously hard work — and you’ve got to be focused. I think Lainie is a pretty good example. She works hard, and I know when I played I worked with my dad every single night whether I wanted to or not, but most of the time I did.
I didn’t have normal weekends. I was gone and played softball in every state, and when we weren’t doing that I was playing AAU basketball.
Finch: And that’s the real difference between this girl and that girl. Some girls that go to college do just what she’s talking about, but some of the other girls are just happy where they ended up. Sometimes girls are just done after high school because they are burned out.
The other thing about softball is dad and mom; they’ve got to be very devoted to this. I’m not going to say it’s very expensive, but that full ride (of a college scholarship) wasn’t a full ride when you’re done. Us personally, in one summer we were in Colorado, Oklahoma, Detroit and Wisconsin. For five weekends, we were out of the state with softball. It takes the right parents.
NT: What’s it like to see a kid go through the process and succeed in high school or ASA?
Finch: It’s very rewarding. I’m busy being a lineman (for a local energy company) so I tell the kids all I have to do is read the paper and I know what kind of game they had. When they walk back in, I’ll say, ‘Seven strikeouts? What was the problem?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, this wasn’t working’ so I’ll say, ‘Well, we need to make this work because we need to be double-digits in strikeouts.’
NT: Jessica, do you go to games or do you stay away and read about it in the NewsTribune?
Heider: We try to go. When Lainie was at state, we went. The whole week when she was preparing for it, her dad called and was like, ‘You’ve got to tune her up’ because she’s in high school and is busy and couldn’t come every week.
The day after she came was when she had the outstanding game (a 20-strikeout performance against Stillman Valley in the 10-inning Oregon Sectional final). Then I gave her a tune-up before (the super-sectional) and then I was pitching with her at state on the field.
Finch: I think Lainie and Hannah Huebbe were some of the girls who when they were small could’ve given up real easy. They would cry and say, ‘I can’t do it.’ We always told them, ‘Yes, you can do it. We will get through this,’ and they both did. For some girls it’s easy, but for most of them it’s not so I always tell them it’s all about heart and desire.
NT: Have you ever coached or thought about coaching?
Finch: I don’t know about her, but my feeling is I have too many pitchers out there and I’d be bumping heads. I can’t coach one of my pitchers and have another one throw against me and not say, ‘Hey, get that elbow through’ when my girls would be going, ‘Isn’t she throwing hard enough?’ It’s something I would love to do and most of the time when (Jessica) was playing I was an assistant coach. I’ve thought about when I retire maybe looking into getting involved, but it’s hard to do what we do and coach.
Heider: I have an 18-month-old daughter, too, (in addition to an older son) so it’d be hard. Bill Prokup at St. Bede has been asking me for years and Midland was the first team who contacted me out of college. … I probably will at some point, but not right now.
NT: I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but you share the same last name as legendary softball player Jennie Finch.
Tom Finch: (Laughs) You should see all the T-shirts that have come in. I should sell T-shirts. But she probably has the best story that happened on the airplane. They flew us to Florida during her (college) recruitment and it was the same weekend Jennie Finch won the NCAA tournament with Arizona. Well, she had a T-shirt on the plane that said, ‘J Finch’ and everybody was like, ‘Great game, good job. You’re a heck of a softball player.’ We’re like, ‘She is heck of a softball player but she’s not Jennie Finch.’
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.