In the span of eight weeks earlier this year, Taylor Clarke experienced two of the most emotional days of his coaching career.
On Jan. 1, his friend and mentor Danny Krispinsky died after battling cancer for more than three years. Krispinsky hired Clarke, a Cary-Grove graduate, at Ohio’s Ashland University in 2014 as a graduate assistant coach on the women's soccer team.
Clarke spent two years on the staff, then returned as the interim head coach last season, when the 35-year-old Krispinsky’s illness caused him to step away from his job.
“It was really, really tough,” Clarke said. “One of the hardest things was sharing that news (of Krispinsky’s death) with our group. As a team, we felt like we needed to be there for anybody who needed it, whether it was somebody in our program or anybody else on campus.”
In late February, Clarke was hired as the NCAA Division II program’s head coach, succeeding Krispinsky.
Despite the change in his title, Ashland’s players didn’t express surprise.
“There was no change in our girls that day,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh, OK. You’ve been our coach for however many months. Let’s keep going.’ I feel like I’ve had their trust from Day 1.”
In spring workouts, Clarke said his approach was exactly the same as last season.
“You have to treat it as if you’re the head coach because that’s what everybody who’s part of the program deserves,” Clarke said of his interim role. “Regardless of what your title looks like, you have to give everything.”
The Eagles finished 10-5-5 last season under Clarke, making the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004. A renewed defensive focus allowed Ashland to cut its goals-against average from 1.26 a game to 0.82. This spring, the team has worked on being more powerful offensively.
“To me, it’s so important to be defensively sound,” Clarke said. “Now, it’s OK, we’re in those spots. When we win the ball, how can we attack and create chances for ourselves?”
When he hired Clarke, Ashland athletic director Al King cited the new coach’s work ethic, leadership and attention to detail.
Many of those traits, Clarke said, were honed while working for Krispinsky.
“The biggest things he showed me was incredible strength, character, belief in people around you and to work as hard as you can, no matter what the circumstances are,” Clarke said. “He taught me so much about how to truly give yourself to something and to serve and lead in a way where you put others first.”
Clarke said he saw the results of Krispinsky’s giving when more than 1,000 people waited two-plus hours in early January for the late coach’s calling hours on campus.
“He would’ve wanted somebody to be as hungry as they can to help this program continue to push forward,” Clarke said. “That’s what I was ready to give it.”
NACC softball honoree: Milwaukee School of Engineering junior Amanda Manssen (McHenry West) has enjoyed a spectacular spring.
Manssen was honored this week as a first-team All-Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference selection in softball. She has a team-best .441 average for the Raiders, who won the NACC tournament last weekend and are making their first NCAA Division III tournament appearance this week.
Manssen also was named NACC Player of the Week on Tuesday after hitting .714 in three games at the conference tournament.
For the season, Manssen has a 1.000 fielding percentage playing first base and leads the team with 64 hits and 39 RBIs.
Shields shines in MVC: Huntley grad Jessica Shields, a junior outfielder at Loyola, was named the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year in softball Wednesday. She also was named to the All-MVC second team.
Shields, a transfer from D-II Wisconsin-Parkside, set the Loyola record with 35 stolen bases this season while batting .376 with a team-high 44 runs scored. While ranking eighth nationally in steals, she also was second on the team with 62 hits. Shields is only the third Loyola player to win the newcomer honor.
CCIW stars: Three local athletes – Johnsburg’s Carly Wilson, Jacobs’ Taylor Belo and Marian Central’s Emily Miller – earned first-team spots on the All-College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin softball team this week.
Wilson, a senior who started at least one game at seven positions this season, led Augustana College in 12 offensive categories, including a .419 batting average, seven home runs, 31 RBIs and a .726 slugging percentage. A fellow senior at Augie, Belo started in left field for the Vikings. Her .366 batting average, five homers and .545 slugging percentage ranked second only to Wilson on the team.
Miller, a sophomore outfielder at North Central College, joined Wilson as a repeat first-team selection. She batted .380 this season with a .474 on-base percentage as the team’s leadoff hitter. She led the Cardinals in runs scored (33), hits (49) and walks (23).
Stevens Point standout: Johnsburg grad Matt Stelmasek placed second last weekend at the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference outdoor track and field meet in the 5,000-meter run.
Stelmasek, a junior at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, posted a time of 15 minutes, 0.63 seconds to finish behind only UW-Eau Claire senior Darin Lau, who is an eight-time D-III All-American in track and cross country.
St. John’s honors C-G grad: Wyatt Mascarella was awarded the Rickard F. McSwiney Award this week at St. John’s University’s 73rd annual awards banquet.
A senior catcher on the Red Storm baseball team, Mascarella (Cary-Grove) won the award that is based on an athlete who exhibits pride in team achievements and shows determination in competition and the ability to lead.
Mascarella is batting .259 this season with eight doubles and 25 RBIs for St. John’s (25-19).
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at email@example.com and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.