Drohner will be inducted into WFSCA Hall of Fame
By John Kemmeter
The Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association (WFSCA) announced Feb. 1 that Tom Drohner will be part of its 2018 Hall of Fame Class.
Drohner has spent the last 20 years as the head coach of the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) softball team, which he has guided to eight WIAA Division 1 State Titles, 14 State Tournament appearances and 19 Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Titles.
The induction ceremony is set to take place at the WFSCA Coaches Awards Banquet at Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells Saturday, Feb. 24.
“It’s an awesome honor,” said Drohner. “When I came to Stevens Point, I always wanted to get involved in the baseball program, and quite honestly, I didn’t know a ton about the game of softball.
“There were a lot of similarities, so I knew I’d enjoy it,” he said. “I just didn’t realize how much I’d end up loving the game.”
A graduate of Big Foot High School in Walworth, Drohner played college baseball at St. Edward’s University (Tex.) before he landed a teaching job at SPASH.
When Drohner was named the Panthers’ softball head coach in 1998, he took over a program that hadn’t been to the State Tournament since 1989, and had only won a pair of Conference Titles in the years since then.
“When Tom was offered the head coaching position, he asked me to join him as a SPASH softball varsity coach, and it’s been a great ride ever since,” said Todd VanderLoop, a SPASH softball assistant coach since 1998. “At the time, SPASH was a decent team from year-in and year-out, and I remember the first year afterward we went down and we watched the State Tournament, which was in Waukesha at the time, and we talked about the fact that, ‘maybe some day we get here, and when we do, we want to do it up right.’
“And at the time, both of us never knowing what we would go through in those 20-some years of getting down there 14 times, and State Championship Games nine times, and winning eight of the them,” he said. “We never dreamt of something like that, we just hoped that we could build a program that got down there from time to time.”
After going 28-15 in the first two years and winning a share of the Conference Title in 1998, the Panthers broke through with a State Runner-up finish in 2000, after they lost 1-0 to Appleton East in the 2000 State Championship Game to finish 23-4.
SPASH was back in the State Championship Game the following year, where it won 8-0 over Vernona Area to capture the 2001 State Title with a 25-2 record.
“When I look back on it, when we beat Ashwaubenon in 2000 (in Sectionals), that was kind of the passing of the torch,” said Drohner. “Ashwaubenon was the elite program in the state and we were able to knock them off, and because we were able to beat them, you felt a sense of urgency.
“We were the second-best team in the state in 2000, but 2001 all the way through 2004, we were pretty tough to beat,” he said.
The Panthers won the State Title again in 2002 with a 5-2 win over Verona Area in the State Championship Game to finish 25-1, then beat Appleton East 3-0 to win the 2003 State Title and finish 26-0, before they won 5-0 over Ashwaubenon in the 2004 State Championship Game to finish 25-1 and become the only softball team in Wisconsin history to win fourth consecutive State Titles.
“The year before the start of the streak, we made it all the way to the State Championship Game, and literally missed winning that game by inches, and that just kind of turned the corner there for us and made us that much hungrier,” said VanderLoop. “When we got there we had a great core of younger kids that bought in, and we won four State Championships, sometimes I think just because teams thought they should lose to SPASH at the time.
“We had a bit of a stigma of like, ‘SPASH softball’s supposed to win,’ and the kids believed that, and it just kind of happened,” he said. “It was quite a ride.”
“It was a fun time in our program,” said Drohner, whose teams went a combined 101-4 over that four-year span. “We had a lot of really good softball players, we had a lot of really good parents that wanted their kids to be good at the game of softball and they did whatever they needed to do to help get better.
“In 2001, we had a really young group of kids that put us on the map, and that 2003 group was one of the top senior groups I have ever had, and then we just figured out how to win ballgames,” he said. “So in 2004, after we lost seven senior starters, we just knew how to win ballgames and we just kept winning, so we were able to get that fourth straight, and obviously we had some great players along the way to get that job done.”
SPASH made one State Tournament appearance over the next three years, and then bounced back in 2008, when the team went 26-0 and won the fifth State Title under Drohner with a 2-1 victory over Verona in the State Championship Game.
With 2008 WFSCA State Player of the Year Stacey Tuskowski and 2011 WFSCA State Player of the Year Kelly Franks both seeing time at pitcher, the Panthers advanced to the 2009 WIAA Division 1 State Championship Game, where the game was tied 0-0 heading into extra innings, when SPASH scored six runs in the top of the ninth and won 6-0 to win its second consecutive State Title and finish 27-3.
“When you have the type of talent that we had in 2008 and 2009, there was some dedicated moms and dads that were really bought into being a SPASH softball Panther, and they did whatever they could to help kids get better at the game of softball,” said Drohner. “And that 2009 team was probably as deep as any team we’ve ever had.
“We had unbelievable pitching, we had essentially two First Team All-State players in Stacey and Kelly in the circle, and we were as deep as you could imagine at every position,” he said. “We went 18 deep, without even stretching that we could’ve interchanged anybody, with the great pitching and great defense and the hitting that we had.”
The Panthers had their quest for a three-peat end with a 1-0 loss to eventual State Champion Kaukauna in 2010, while top-ranked Kaukauna returned most of its lineup the following year and handed SPASH its only loss in the regular season, before the two teams met up in the Sectional Final.
The Panthers went on to pull out a 2-1 victory over the Kaukauna team that was ranked fifth in the nation, and then capped its run with a 2-1 victory over Wilmot Union in the State Championship Game to win the 2011 State Title with a 27-1 record, and claim their third State Title in four years.
“That was probably one of the most fun games I’ve ever coached in,” said Drohner of the win over Kaukauna. “We lost to them earlier in the year 1-0, and we really knew that we were capable of beating them, we lost earlier in a really tough game.
“But we had a great pitcher in Kelly Franks, and the thing that I remember most about that game is we lost our best offensive player the night before at practice, Emily Mallek broke her wrist, and we could’ve sat and moped about that, but we stepped up and went over and beat Kaukauna after they had won 51-straight games,” he said. “And from there we just kind of rolled in the State Tournament.”
During that 12-year span from 2000 to 2011, SPASH went 291-19 and won seven State Championships
“I started coaching with Tom our first year we got to Stevens Point, he asked me to come and help, and I just had a ton of fun learning the game of softball from him,” said Dave Hauser, a SPASH softball assistant coach from 2009 through 2014. “And then to work side-by-side with a guy that is as passionate about helping kids and creating competitive environments and teaching kids how to take advantage of opportunities, I just sat back every day and I learned more about coaching from him than I have from a lot of people.
“To watch how he operated and watch how he and Todd VanderLoop molded young girls into great players and All-State players was remarkable,” he said. “You always go through life as a coach, trying to find that one player or two in your coaching career that has that little ‘it’ factor, and I always used to tell people, Tom’s got ‘it.’
“They always asked what ‘it’ is, and I can’t really explain it, you’ve just got to come watch the guy and watch his fire and competitiveness and how he supports his players and gives them confidence and makes them believe in the program,” he said. “And how he gets them to play with such a passion themselves.”
SPASH made three consecutive State Tournament appearances from 2012 to 2014 but was knocked off in the Sectional Final in 2015, before it returned to state in 2016.
Behind junior pitcher and co-WFSCA State Player of the Year Aubrey Drohner, Drohner’s older daughter, the Panthers advanced to the 2016 WIAA Division 1 State Championship Game, where they beat Watertown 16-4 to finish 29-3 and win their eighth State Title under Drohner.
“I’m not sure offensively I’ve ever had a team that got as hot as they did, and at the State Tournament we were just an absolute juggernaut offensively,” said Drohner. “Obviously with my daughter being a huge part of that success, it was extra special, but I look at it this way too: I’ve had a lot of (players) that I look at them and thought they were like my daughters.
“It was a very proud moment as a dad and as a coach with my own daughter, but there was so many great young ladies that I’ve had the opportunity to coach that I think very highly of, and that’s what’s really special to me,” he said. “Building those relationships is the most important thing to me, and I’m really proud of that.”
Last season SPASH won its 18th consecutive WVC Title and 19th in 20 years under Drohner, and advanced to state for the 14th time in the last 20 years, where it fell to eventual State Champion Kaukauna in the State Semifinals.
Drohner thanked VanderLoop and all of the assistant coaches who have helped out over the last two decades, when the Panthers have had two Wisconsin Gatorade Players of the Year in Alexis Mains (2002) and Katie Maultra (2006), three WFSCA Players of the Year in Stacey Tuskowski (2008), Kelly Franks (2011) and Aubrey Drohner (2016), and 48 First Team All-State players.
“We started 20-some years ago together, and accomplished a lot through that time,” said VanderLoop. “This is a great accomplishment for him and the program, and I’m very proud to say I was a part of it.
“He’s just a great influence in terms of being a leader, and is just very demanding of the kids,” he said. “Expectations were raised when he took the program over, he never backed off of those, and kids have always tried to meet those.”
“Todd and I really think a lot alike, and you can just kind of give each other that look and you know what each other’s thinking,” said Drohner. “That’s something I’m very proud of, not a lot of people have good enough relationships where they can have someone coach with them for that many years, and Todd loves the game of softball just like I do, he’s got a passion for it and has done an unbelievable job in our program.
“And then we’ve had some other great coaches along the way, coach (Bill) Mansur is still helping our program but he’s also helping an awful lot of girls in the central Wisconsin area become better fastpitch softball pitchers,” he said. “Mike Maultra, who is giving back years later after his kids have gone through from the early 2000s teams, I have a great JV coach right now in Rachel Graves, Dan Gagnon is extremely loyal to the program, Jim Cliver loves the game of softball, and Alexis Mains was a standout pitcher in our program and came back to help us be part of a State Championship on a coaching staff. And I think that once you’re a part of our program and you get the feel of the way we do things, it makes you appreciate our program and how much it’s meant to our community, and the coaching staff is a huge reason why.”
Drohner also thanked his wife Kate, as well as their four kids, D.J., Aubrey, Avery and Tommy.
“My wife has always been extremely supportive of everything that I’ve ever done, especially in the terms of the coaching world, being gone and missing a lot of time, and she’s always been the person running people around when I couldn’t do it,” said Drohner. “When you don’t have that kind of support, it makes it real difficult, and so she’s really our rock in this family.
“And my kids grew up in the program, my son D.J. was born in 1997 when I was just getting started in the program, and in 1998 my daughter Aubrey was born so she grew up in the dugout, and then Avery was born in 2000, and my son Tommy was born in 2003, so ever since those kids knew what the heck was going on, they’ve been a part of the SPASH softball program,” he said. “They probably were dad’s biggest supporters, and in some aspects thought that we were supposed to go to state every year, and couldn’t understand why we didn’t do it a couple of times.
“And then as they got a little bit older, my girls being part of the program has been super special to me,” he said. “Tommy loves to be around it too, and I would be shocked if my son D.J. wasn’t coaching with us before too long.”
Drohner was also named the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Coach of the Year for Wisconsin four times (2004, 2008, 2009 and 2011) and has a 468-65 record overall, while he said he has always tried to do the best job he could in the program and tries to be available to help out anybody and everybody in the game of softball.
“Tom is one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around, and he’s also one of the most loyal people I’ve ever been around,” said Hauser. “Tom’s just one of those unique people that, everybody should spend 15, 20 minutes of their life with him, and you’ll see the fire.
“But he’s also a great father, he’s a great husband, he’s a great teacher, and he’s a great member of the community,” he said. “And for the time and the passion that he’s given, not only to Stevens Point softball and the high school at SPASH, but just the game itself, he’s very deserving of the honor.”
“I’m really proud of our tradition, and it’s been an unbelievable part of my life,” said Drohner. “And as you get a little bit older, you start to reflect a little bit, and it’s not about softball, it’s more about building young women.
“Teaching them that through hard work and dedication comes success, about working your butt off for opportunities, and what you do with those opportunities are up to you, and it takes no talent to hustle,” he said. “And you put all of those things together, and you have something that you can build your life around.”