On the rare occasion Heather Boeckenstedt misplayed a ball, she knew she could expect to hear something about it from her coach.
Dyersville Beckman’s senior shortstop created far more than her share of runs this season.
But mistakes would eat at her. She made 14 errors this season, and each one made her angry.
That’s where Trailblazers coach Ryan Meissner made his mark.
“He would come up and say ‘Wow, that one went right between your legs,’” Boeckenstedt said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, yeah it did.’ It just kind of makes you laugh and take a step back from being mad, or even being sad. If he brings a joke up to you, you’re going to forget about it. You’re going to laugh. That’s just what he’s good at doing.”
It was that kind of atmosphere that allowed Beckman to thrive this season.
Built with a roster of two seniors, a junior, and a whole bunch of underclassmen, Meissner helped guide the Blazers to a 30-14 record and the program’s first-ever trip to the state tournament.
“He’s a relaxing guy. He makes it seem like its OK when you make a mistake because he knows everyone is going to do it,” said senior ace Sydney Steffen, who will join Boeckenstedt at Coe College next season. “It’s bound to happen to every person at some point in time, so he helps you stay calm when it happens and make the next play.”
Meissner, the 2019 Telegraph Herald Softball Coach of the Year, is in his fourth year with the program. He initially was the program’s head coach from 2008-09 before stepping down. With a pair of coaches leading the team in between, Meissner retook the reins prior to the 2018 season.
While making softball fun was a major part of Meissner’s focus, fun didn’t necessarily mean unstructured practices.
“We did have home run derby and we played some games or whatever, but sometimes fun is just, you know what, I’m not going to harp on you for the little things,” he said. “If you make an error, I don’t need to make you feel bad. You already feel bad. I’m not going to yell at you because you already feel worse than anybody out there. It’s the next pitch, it’s the next play. Let’s go get the next one.”
Meissner, who is also the co-head coach of Beckman’s girls track team, said he benefitted from playing under or coaching with at least eight different high school hall of fame coaches, including late Beckman baseball coach Tom Jenk Jr.
“There’s something to be said about being around that type of person, and those lessons you learn,” said Meissner, who filled in as an assistant coach on Beckman’s baseball team as Jenk underwent treatment for a brain tumor. “Every year, Tom would say hey, come to my practice. He would let me run drills with some kids or he’d let me be in the dugout. One year he said hop on the bus, we’re going to the state tournament. I got to spend two and a half hours talking baseball with him. Those are the people that kind of mold you and teach you the lessons.”
But perhaps the mentor he models himself after most is his former high school football coach Jeff Trickey, a member of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Hall of Fame who coached at Cudahy, Waukesha South and Waukesha West.
“I was a player under him, so now I try to relate what he did to us players, what messages he would say and the things he would say. So I try, I don’t do it nearly as good as he did, but try to do what he would do because he was such a great coach and a great person,” Meissner said. “He spoke of it a lot, high school kids are taking a risk playing a sport. They have to put themselves up on stage in front of their fans, in front of their teammates, in front of their peers, in front of everybody. They’re taking a risk. They may make an error, they may make a mistake, you can’t forget that. You’ve got to remember that you can’t put the weight of the world on them because they already think it’s on them. You have to take some of that weight off of them to help them play free, not careless but carefree, and have some fun.”
That display of care and empathy, players said, is part of what made this season so special.
Sure, there would be losses along the way. Some might be ugly. Some may hurt more than others.
But it was all a part of the process.
“He knew that every game was important, but the games we lost and won were games that were going to help us build. Even the games we lost, they were games that we could pull something away from on why we lost and why something didn’t happen,” Steffen said. “All of it was a process to get down to state. We were all trying to get better and end up making it down to Fort Dodge.”
The process certainly isn’t complex. As Meissner explained it, it simply means extra focus. Don’t skip a step.
Beginning with the fundamentals.
“It’s breaking it down and taking each step, recognizing each step along the way. From basic fundamental drills, whether it’s catching and throwing, pitching, hitting, breaking it down each step along the way and not skipping anything,” he said. “Everything we do is important. Stretching is important. Warming up is important. Playing catch, yeah you’re playing catch and you’re talking and you’re having fun, but it’s important. That’s why we do those things.
“I tell, them, I’m not there to waste your time. If you want me to waste your time, I’m not going to do it. Everything we do is for a reason. You may not notice the reason right now, but there’s a reason behind it.”
One of Meissner’s first answers in his July 15 post-game interview was to say the process had worked.
The Blazers had just knocked off Iowa Class 2A No. 2-ranked Durant, 4-2, in a regional final. On the road. The reward was a spot in program history.
That moment, and Meissner’s celebration, is one of the top things Steffen will remember about her senior season.
“It was just the happiness you saw on his face after the final out down,” she said. “You could tell he was happy for the team as a whole because we finally accomplished something that had never been done in Beckman history.”
Meissner said he felt relief and a profound sense of satisfaction after the final out.
With that comes maybe a little more pressure, though.
“I’m not going to shy away from it. The bar has been set, so now we have to go reach it again,” Meissner said. “We’re going to challenge them. Yes, you only lose two. But you lose two key players. So, there’s your challenge. Who’s going to step up and take the role? It may not be one person. It may take three pitchers to replace (Sydney). It may take two shortstops to replace Heather. It may take a shortstop and then a designated hitter to replace Heather. Who knows?
“But that’s the challenge. I’m not going to lower the bar. The bar has been set. We’re not lowering it now. This is our goal now. That’s what it is. And if you don’t reach it, you don’t reach it. You don’t hang your head. You say OK, I’m going to go do it next year.”
The Blazers lost their state quarterfinal game, but bounced back to end the season on a win in the consolation game.
Boeckenstedt was a two-time state hurdles champion on the track with Meissner as her coach. For her and Steffen, that win in Fort Dodge was their final game with Meissner.
Both will play for Coe College next season — Steffen will also play volleyball — but it won’t be quite the same.
“I know in college it gets a little more serious and everything, but I’m just going to miss that fun atmosphere that he always brought,” Boeckenstedt said. “You could just tell he cared for you so much as a player, and when you have a small program like you do at Beckman, the coaches are just more individualized toward you.
“I know it’s going to be like that in college, but just the fun, small, caring atmosphere is what I will miss the most, and that was his coaching style completely.”