Blue pride: Wes Douglas spent 34 years in a Norwalk uniform

·10 min read

Jun. 17—NORWALK — The moments of clarity are becoming more frequent.

On Tuesday, Wes Douglas made his familiar drive past the Norwalk High School baseball field. Severe storms had rocked the region the night before. The field was wet, with branches strewn across, and part of the fence wind-screen was off.

A summer league game was scheduled to be played later that day.

"Part of me felt like I needed to go out there and clean it up, but then part of me told myself, 'no, you don't need to do it anymore,'" Douglas said. "So I kept going. So there's already some empty-nest issues going on."

On May 30, Douglas stoically watched the final out of Norwalk's 6-2 loss to Perkins in a Division II district championship game at Fremont Ross. Shortly after the Truckers collected their runner-up medals and trophy, Douglas got a hug from his sister, Bobbi, then held back tears announcing his retirement after 26 years of coaching his alma mater.

With a 425-238 (.641) overall record in 25 seasons, Douglas is at peace walking away after 19 wins this year. The Truckers won six league championships, 11 sectional titles and reached four district championship games during his tenure.

Norwalk had seven 20-win seasons and three other 19-win seasons in the last 20 years.

"I don't regret anything with regards to staying this long and leaving now," he said. "There is going to be a void to fill, for sure. It was my identity and who I was for a very long time. I'll never leave the program and will always be there if they need me.

"I just ran into a former student of mine this week and she talked about giving batting lessons to her son — so who knows, maybe something like that is in my future," Douglas added. "But I'll always be around Norwalk baseball in some form."

Long road back

A key member of Norwalk baseball's most impressive stretch in the late 70s, Douglas helped the Truckers win 18 games and reach the Class AA state semifinals as a junior in 1978.

From 1976-1981, Norwalk went 85-37 with four Northern Ohio League titles and two trips to the state semifinals under John Deerer, the program's first-ever head coach.

Defiance College and playing quarterback for the Yellow Jackets came next, but then the 1979 NHS graduate was all over the place before finding his way home.

"It took me over two years to land a full-time job," he said. "I was substitute teaching, coaching, waiting tables — you name it. Finally, Monroeville took me in as a three-sport coach."

Douglas coached junior-high football and basketball and junior-varsity baseball for two years for the Eagles.

"And we were the 'Bad News Bears,'" he said. "A girl named Kim Osborn was our starting second-baseman and we didn't win a game."

After taking more classes, Douglas worked at Edison's middle school in Berlin Heights for four years, followed by a two-year stint in Clyde as an elementary gym teacher.

Finally, a dozen years after college, Douglas came back home. Norwalk football coach Ron DeLuca added Douglas to the staff in 1995. The next year, he replaced retiring Denny Corrigan as one of two physical education positions at NHS — a job he still holds today.

"I kicked around," Douglas said. "I tell people I actually retired in my 20s."

After two years as assistant baseball coach, he applied to be head coach. At his interview with then-athletic director Mike Grose and principal Harry Boguszewski, he had a folder and a plan.

"I said I wanted to be the coach for 25 years and build a program that is known around the state," Douglas said. "I remember Mike nodded his head with a smile, and Dr. B gave me a look that said, 'who wants to be a coach for 25 years?'"

Building a winner

By 1997 when Douglas took the job, the Truckers had fallen on hard times — going a decade without a winning season and collecting only 14 wins over the previous four seasons. For the two years prior to Douglas, the record was 4-41.

Predictably, that first season was a struggle — but at 8-19, the team doubled the wins of the previous two seasons.

Then, losing seasons became rare. With Douglas at the helm, the Truckers notched just two of those over the next 24 years, including a 13-14 mark in 2007.

"The hardest part early on was trying to get young players to be able to understand what it took to be successful and be competitive," Douglas said. "We walked into some good players after the first year that had been coached the right way by their dads with the Norwalk Merchants travel team.

"To be honest, I think they needed more discipline and a little bit better practice habits," he added. "And along with that, the skills needed to improve. But we were fortunate to get some pretty talented players, and then we cleaned house a little bit. We started with eight wins in 1997 and five years later (2001) we were winning 24 games and a league title."

Under Douglas, the Truckers became known for their consistency — averaging 17 wins per season for a quarter century — and for their baseball diamond.

And the biggest reason for that is because Wes Douglas loves that field. After five years of coaching at the city's Baines Park, the Truckers got their own field when the new high school opened in 2001.

No longer did Douglas have to drive across town between gym classes to pull off a tarp or clear a wet spot.

Their father is so passionate about the field that daughters Hannah and Ally often joke that the baseball diamond is the family's third sibling.

"I've been involved with this field since the day it was planned, and they allowed me to come up with the dimensions and the layout for the most part," Douglas said. "My sister calls it my happy place. Like my girls say, it's Easter Sunday, Father's Day, Sunday evenings ... all to try and get it ready for the next day. And it wasn't just me. A lot of guys have put their hands on that field, and our boosters have given us about whatever we wanted to make as nice as it is.

"It's a work in progress and it never ends, but it's not just me. Our staff and players have taken a lot of pride in the facility. I always said I'd never let it get shaggy like I've seen other places. And if you want to play on it, there's not too many people that are going to help you down there on the weekends other than you, your staff and players — and even some of their parents."

Biggest challenges

Despite all the details a head coach has to keep in check, Douglas said the big challenge of maintaining a winning program never changes.

"This last group of nine seniors were a great group coached by their dads and others with the Norwalk Naturals, so we always had kids who understood how to play," he said. "But there is a lot more parent involvement than when I started coaching. But that comes with the job. You had some meetings behind doors that you wished you didn't have to have. But I think any coach will tell you that comes with the territory.

"But the ones I had were minimal in 26 years," Douglas added. "I had my share of them, but no one ever came after our program or tried to run us out or anything like that. Parents' eyes are always different from most other eyes, and that's not always a bad thing."

Those concerns are dwarfed by the difficulty of having to make roster cuts.

"The hardest thing to do in any sport is eliminating kids who are dreaming of playing in your program," Douglas said. "You're trying to predict what a kid is going to be in three or four years. And we get them right most of the time — but not always. One of my lines at parent meetings is, 'we're not always right, but at this point we've earned the right to be wrong.'

"We don't claim to be perfect or the best coach around, but we'll give everything we got and if we make mistakes, we make mistakes. But we're not going to mistreat your child and there shouldn't be much reason to complain."

Norwalk legacy

Despite all the victories, one key accomplishment missing from Norwalk's achievements under Douglas is a district championship.

Even though that goal wasn't reached, Douglas has a perspective allows him to sleep at night.

"You never win as many championships as you'd like, or get to regionals or state," he said. "Everyone thinks that way. My job is not to get them to the regional and state. It's to make them better young men and baseball players. We created a better program that competed with passion every day and played the game the right way. We tried to make better young men out of the kids who needed our help. I hope we helped fill a gap with them to become good young adults.

"It is what it is, but we put ourselves in position to compete for district titles," Douglas added. "We ran into two MLB draft picks at Perkins one year, and bumped to Division I and lost 3-2 to defending state champion Perrysburg another time. We gave it our best shot. It's a little disappointing, but it's not going to keep me awake at night."

Douglas has an even bigger legacy at NHS. Only Grace Hutchinson, who won 552 volleyball matches, has more coaching wins at the school.

Hutchinson and Douglas taught phys-ed classes in tandem at Norwalk for 10 years.

"First of all, I wish people knew how much Grace did for not just Norwalk volleyball, but for this part of the country," Douglas said. "I sat alongside her every day for 10 years and picked her brain about things she did to build a program — and some of those things I used until the last day of my career. So yeah, it's definitely a feeling of pride."

All told, Douglas — who will return as boys golf coach and teacher in the fall — spent 34 years wearing a Norwalk baseball uniform as a player or coach. He's coached about 110 seasons across multiple sports.

"I had such a great experience as a high school athlete at Norwalk High School," he said. "So to get Norwalk baseball back on the map after it had kind of fallen off meant a lot. Go back to when I played and Coach Deerer took us to state twice in three years and the program wasn't even 10 years old yet. So that was all I knew coming out of high school was a successful program.

"To get it back on the map with the friends on staff, I think I counted 29 guys over the last 26 years. And most of them were volunteers, and all were good friends and some of them are great lifetime friends. Gary Wilde did 17 years with me and Chris Jackson for 19. To do it with those kinds of people and the players and families that I got to know — to do it all with that kind of a village, there is definitely a sense of pride."