CEDAR RAPIDS — They miss their coach. But the Jefferson J-Hawks haven’t missed a beat.
“When we get on the field, we’re able to put everything in the back of our minds, play the game and do our best,” said Kenna Fry, first baseman for the Cedar Rapids Jefferson softball team.
Despite lingering medical issues that have kept Coach Larry Niemeyer off the diamond for nearly half the season, the J-Hawks have more than merely treaded water. A sweep of Dubuque Hempstead on Thursday wrapped up the Mississippi Valley Conference Valley Division championship.
Jefferson (33-5 overall, 23-1 MVC) is ranked No. 4 in Class 5A.
“It’s been a crazy summer,” said Nick Niemeyer, Larry’s son and assistant coach, who has assumed interim-coaching duties. “We’ve got a lot of determined kids. We’re lucky that we’ve got six seniors who have really taken a leadership role.”
Larry Niemeyer is the nation’s all-time winningest softball coach, with a 52-year record of 2,086-428. He has been hospitalized twice this season, ending his second stint at St. Luke’s on Thursday.
He did not accompany the J-Hawks on Friday, when they traveled to the Ottumwa Classic — Jefferson defeated Solon and lost to Southeast Polk.
“He’s been my coach all five of my years here, and it’s really unfortunate,” said shortstop Carson Burgart. “I hope he’s healthy and ready to go by regionals (next week).
“But when we’re playing, we’re able to keep our focus and think about nothing other than softball.”
Of the 18 games Larry Niemeyer has missed, the J-Hawks have won 16.
“I think it has been tough on the kids not having Chief around,” said Nick Niemeyer, 31, who has coached with his father nine seasons and serves as a paraprofessional for behavior disorders at Jefferson. “He’s anxious to get back. When he was in the hospital, we were supposed to call him every inning. If we didn’t, he’d get anxious.”
Larry Niemeyer retired as girls’ basketball coach at Jefferson in March. His players refer to him as “Mr. Niemeyer.”
Nick, they just call “Nick.”
“He’s fun,” Burgart said. “He does a lot of the same stuff that his dad does. If he wants to be a head coach someday, he’s definitely qualified.”
Succeeding his father – whether it’s next year, in five years or whatever — has “crossed my mind,” Nick said.
“I’d like to be a head coach, and I would love for it to be here someday if I have the opportunity,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn. My coaching method is a little different. Chief is pretty demanding.”
If this is a dress rehearsal or a resume-builder for the future, Nick has nailed it.
The J-Hawks have remained successful because they’ve hit well — four of them are hitting .400 or better, led by Burgart at .446 — and because Brooke Stauffer (15-1, 1.93 ERA) has developed into a solid No. 2 pitcher behind Hannah Petersen (16-3, 0.70).
“Our bats have been going strong late in the season, and Brooke has really improved,” Fry said. “Our defense has been good, as always.”
The divisional title is an accomplishment. But it’s been three years since the J-Hawks have advanced to the state tournament. At Jefferson, three years is a long time.
And the postseason is what Niemeyer points toward. Both Niemeyers, actually.
“These seniors deserve another shot out there,” Nick said.
Fry said, “We’re capable of a lot. We’re capable of getting to state, and if we do, we’ll see what happens.”