PORTLAND, Ore. — The man in the sleeveless T-shirt with “Georgia Girls” on the front stood whacking softballs one-handed with a fuchsia bat.
It was practice time.
And Roger Stella is certainly serious about practice.
“Practice is the name of the game,” says Bobby Killebrew, who has helped Stella guide Warner Robins back to the Little League Softball World Series for the second time in as many years. “He’s a practicing fool.”
Before the team’s series opener Thursday, Stella, with that hot-magenta bat, pounded balls toward his players in an act that was part choreography, part motivational seminar. He socked balls with his right arm, and in a steady, reassuring voice, he coaxed results from a field of 11 softball all-stars, players who range in age from 11 to 13.
“Taylor, charge it hard! Quick, quick, quick. Let’s go!” he said, the gentle rhythm of his instructions as pitch perfect as a line drive off the sweet spot. You might call it drill-sergeant light.
“Dig, dig, dig!” he continued. “Come on, come on, come on! Move, move move! ... Atta girl! Act like you want to be here. Five wins away from the championship. ... Atta girl, Taylor Brown, stay with it! ... You can’t make no outs holding the ball! ... Make it look easy! ... Crisp throws! Act like you’ve done it before. ... The easier it looks, the better you are.”
Stella, who is 36 with close-cropped dark hair and an easy grin that seems to say he knows he has one of the coolest gigs in youth sports, has coached softball for much of the past decade. He and his parents moved to Warner Robins from a town on the Wisconsin-Michigan border in 1981, when he was a first-grader. His father, Roger Sr., was a military man and a youth-league coach, not to mention a Green Bay Packers fan and devotee of the New York Yankees, teams his son would come to love, as well.
Roger Jr., who runs a janitorial-supply business with his father-in-law, played basketball at Warner Robins. At all of 5-foot-7, he worked at his point guard skills and worked until he could dunk. He has coached his daughter Sierra since she was in T-ball, and along the way other children took to his coaching style in the leagues at Warner Robins American.
“I try to keep it simple,” he said. “Girls are different than boys. Girls, you have to take each personality, depending on who you’re talking to as to how you handle it. ... The girls at this level, it’s not rocket science. Keeping them focused, that’s the main part.”
Teens and pre-teen attention spans can stray. He has a knack for reining them in.
“But it’s not like I’m waving some magic wand at them,” he says. “Girls seem to care a lot more. They’re into the game — very, very quick learners. And they’re there because they care. A lot of times, boys are just there because of dad. With girls playing softball, especially at this level, they really want to be there. They want to learn. They want to do better.”
Stella, a father of three — Sierra, his second baseman, daughter Raegan, 7, and 20-month-old son Brooks — was an assistant on last year’s championship club. He coached third base then and is back in the same spot this season.
His wife Stacy says his secret is “just his passion. ... He’s been doing it so long it’s just natural. It’s always been him and (Sierra).”
Stacy Stella, who played softball in high school, coached in the 8-and-under league this season. Her Lady Dawgs won the title, and she coached the all-stars. Before the season, however, she told her players’ parents, “I hope y’all don’t have as high of expectations as you would if it was Roger coaching.”
During the season, she said, “It took all Roger had not to come over the fence and help. But the girls respond so much better to him.”
Warner Robins pitcher Avery Lamb said, “Roger’s not the type of coach to yell at you if you do something wrong. Or at least most of the time he’s not. He’s one of the coaches you respect because he’ll joke around and he’ll just have a good time.”
Taylor Brown, who plays third base, calls her head coach “the cheerleader.”
“He always keeps our heads up and knows how to get our backs off the wall if we’re not playing good,” Brown said.
Roger Sr., who attends most of the team’s practices, was at the final workout before the team headed west. In a Yankees cap and T-shirt, the former Marine and Air Force man, told how when Roger Jr. played football on the 9- and 10-year-old rec-league team he helped coach at Robins Air Force Base, in one of the last games he let Roger Jr., a running back, call the plays.
“He called all the offensive plays,” he said. “And we whipped them.”
What he notices in his son is “the drive.”
“The drive to want the kids to play good,” Roger Sr. said. “He’s got incredible drive to make something good happen.”
Even when something good doesn’t happen. Say, when a throw flies a mile wide of its target in practice. Roger Jr. will say, “Thatta way, baby, right to the glove!” Sarcastic, yet tactful.
Kay Tierce, whose daughter Hayley is on the team, said, “The girls smile but they get the gist of it. ... He is so calm. Usually your yellers and screamers don’t get as much out of them. It’s amazing how he can pull the talent out of them and never raise his voice.”
Sometimes he’ll head out to the mound to check on a pitcher during a tight spot in a game, Tierce said, “And everbody thinks he’s going out with these pearls of wisdom. But what he’ll say is something like, ‘Hey, are you gonna throw a strike soon?’ Sometimes a comment like that lightens the air and it helps.”
Parent Linnette Quakenbush, whose 11-year-old daughter Kayla is the youngest on the squad, said Stella helps the kids believe in themselves.
“I’ve noticed a difference in my daughter,” she said. “He doesn’t talk negative to these girls. They respect him and know what is expected. They look forward to going to practice. ... He’s a positive role model for these girls.”
Killebrew, a manager at Anchor Glass, said Stella is kind of like the boss who rides you to do better and who you love even more for it.
“He’s just a motivator,” Killebrew says. “He doesn’t down them. He’s constantly picking them up. The way he comes across to them, it’s not in a mean way.”
Stella says his approach is about just being real.
“Girls are pretty cool to hang out with,” he said. “They’re not delicate flowers like people think. I clown them and kid them and they pick on me. ... I think they’ve learned me enough to know that I’m not putting them down. They can take me for what I am. You can crack on them and make fun of them and they don’t take it personally. They’ll say something back or say, ‘Shut up, Coach Roger.’ ”
On Sunday at a team lunch gathering to raise money at a buffet in Warner Robins, Stella was looking for a seat in a banquet room in the back of the restaurant. The players had already found a table near the window and were swarming around it.
Stella, plate in hand, finally spotted a place across the room where the adults were sitting and he stepped away from the young ladies who have, during the past month-and-a-half, become his team.
As he turned to go and dine in peace, he said to himself, not so much lamenting as acknowledging the fact, “I’m always around women.”