How Helena Middle’s softball team earned more than 300 wins

By NATHAN HOWELL | Staff Writer

HELENA – After more than a decade leading the program, Coach Mark Sanders and the Helena Middle School softball team achieved an impressive 300 wins for the program, as well as his 450th overall win as a coach.

Sanders said that he credits the hard work and the great talent of the players he has had over the past decade with this accomplishment, which comes after years of winning seasons.

“There has always been a tremendous amount of talent with our players,” Sanders said. “We have had great people in the community that have always worked with the kids when they were younger, so that they were ready when they got to me.”

Sanders started coaching softball when he came to Riverchase Middle School in 2001, which is where most kids who lived in Pelham and Helena attended at the time. The program was struggling and had not seen a winning game in nearly two years.

“When I took that job, I went through and looked at the old score book,” Sanders recalled. “I got to looking through it, and I realized that they had lost every game for the last two years. They were getting beat so bad that most of their games were “run rule,” where you concede if you are down so many runs.”

Not wanting to quit, Sanders rallied and began working as hard as he could to get the team there in shape. His first year as the softball coach at RMS the team won 11 games, which was a significant improvement.

“We didn’t win any tournaments that year, but it was still incredible,” he said. “I remember being so proud of those kids and celebrating every single one of those wins in the spring of 2002.”

In 2008, Helena opened its own middle school and the principal at the time, Jenny Goolsby, sought Sanders out to become the head coach for their softball program. Sanders said he was unsure at first, but he had so much respect for Goolsby that he knew it was the right move, which kicked off his tenure at HMS.

“We opened the doors of HMS in the fall of 2008 and began our spring season in 2009,” Sanders said. “Our talent pool had been cut in half with the split in the schools and we started off with no money of any kind, but that did not stop us. The first year we were 15-6, even though it was a bad weather year we still managed to have a great season.”

Every year following the HMS softball team continued to have winning seasons. According to Sanders, by 2017 the team had a winning season of 34-1, followed by an undefeated season in 2018. This eventually led to the 2021 spring season, where the softball team earned and surpassed its 300th win.

While this is impressive, Sanders said that the cooperation between players and life lessons that his team members learned along the way were even more important.

“The one thing I worked really hard on was teaching the kids how to love each other. We do studies on what it looks like to be a good teammate,” he explained. “I love these kids. I treat them like they are my own kids, and I have great relationships with their parents. We excel because of those things. We have had so many games where we were down to the last strike, and because they believed in each other we would end up winning. That is by design.”

These life lessons that Sanders passed down to his players were instilled in him as a child by his parents, who taught him how to be kind and determined despite the odds.

“My mom dealt with cancer and passed away when I was 15,” Sanders said. “Even down to her last moments she was telling people she was going to live. I learned a lot from that. I got a lot of my fight and determination and drive from seeing her like that, which I wanted to pass down. Both of my parents were a perfect example of how to love and treat other people.”

Aside from his parents, Sanders said that the help of his assistant coach Bruce Howland, support from the school faculty and staff and the continued understanding of his wife and children helped him to strive to be the best coach for the team that he could be.

“Bruce and I have the same philosophy about how we mentor kids. The way we love them and create the right environment for them to succeed,” he explained. “And my wife and kids have been a tremendous source of support for me. With my job I am gone a lot, and they have continued to understand and be there for me.”

While the more than 300 wins marks an impressive achievement for the players and the program as a whole, Sanders said it is all of these life lessons that are the biggest win for the players on his team.

“I tell them they are going to spend a lot more years not playing softball than playing it,” he said. “While you are here I want you to learn a lot about life, and how to act, and to carry that with you for the rest of your life.”