Fyler forms Phenix’s foundation

Over 30 years of challenges help coach teach about softball, life

To say Randy Fyler is the father of Lawrence fast-pitch softball wouldn’t be a stretch.

He started what has evolved into the 10-team Phenix organization in the early ’80s, and more than 30 years later, he’s still coaching.

Off the field, Fyler recently retired from a 32-year tenure as a teacher, and also throws newspapers to northwest Lawrence for the Kansas City Star.

As the first day of the national tournament games were wrapping up at 3:30 a.m. on July 19 because of a two-hour rain delay to start the tournament, Randy Fyler was already starting his day.

When he arrived in Lawrence from Newton in 1981, Fyler brought competitive fast-pitch softball with him. He had played and coached fast-pitch in Newton, but when he came to Lawrence, no leagues existed.

“It was backwards. The high school had a fast-pitch softball team, but they had to play in slow-pitch leagues in the summer,” Fyler said. “And the baseball team had developed a great summer (American) Legion program, but had no high school baseball program.

Before he had kids, Fyler started two competitive girls’ fast-pitch teams, one for 13- to 15-year-olds and another for 16- to 18-year-olds. He found coaching both teams to be overwhelming, though.

LuAnn Metsker came back to help her former coach and she began coaching the teams. The teams were not yet the Phenix, as they are today, but went by other names like the Hummers and the Blazers. Later, Fyler helped form the Phenix organization.

“Now there are nine or 10 teams and they are all successful on their own terms,” Fyler said.

With six teams at the American Fastpitch Association National “B” Tournament and another team representing the organization at the American Softball Assn.’s national tournament in Texas, he said he is satisfied with the development of the organization.

16-U Phenix Head Coach Randy Fyler observes his players batting during an American Fastpitch Assn, national B tournament game against the Jefferson City Heat at Clinton Lake Sports Complex. Fyler's team lost the game 6-0 after losing in extra innings to the Independence Eclipse.

Fyler’s contributions go beyond his own work. He has also left his stamp on the Lawrence softball community by coaching many of the people who would become its future leaders. Bonnie Mills, who began the Lawrence Fastpitch Girls Assn.’s developmental league last summer, played for Fyler before going on to play softball at Kansas University.

He also coached Metsker, who now is the head coach for the 18-U Hummers — the only non-Phenix fast-pitch team in Lawrence.

He has also seen the tragic side of softball. When one of his players, Patty Heitzman, a former KU softball player, was killed, he got together with her father, Paul, and decided to start the Patty Heitzman Memorial Tournament. In its prime, more than 50 teams played in tournament.

Fyler said that when the Phenix organization began, keeping the tournament alive was something important to him.

“We’d take a break between games and have iced watermelons and just talk about Patty,” Fyler said. “I’d like to see that come back.”

In recent years, scheduling has prevented the Phenix from hosting the tournament.

Once his son, Andrew, became old enough to play sports, Fyler took a 10-year hiatus from coaching to coach Andrew in soccer and basketball.

He would still watch softball, but his focus was on Andrew and his daughter, Molly. When she was old enough to play softball, she triggered the softball bug in him once again.

“One day, out of the blue, she asked me I could show her how to fast pitch,” Fyler said. “So, I took her in the backyard and showed her.”

Molly hadn’t been born when he had coached before, but she had watched games with him throughout the years.

The nucleus of the team he coaches today began as the 10-U team he started. Throughout the years, players have had to move up or stay down in an age group and play for other teams.

Some of the girls on his original team now play for Jay Rusk’s 14-U Phenix team, but seven players have been playing for Fyler from the time they began as 10-year-olds.

“The group wouldn’t stay together if we didn’t like each other,” Fyler said.

Because many of the girls on his team just missed the cutoff to play in the 14-U division, Fyler’s team is playing against more experienced squads in the older 16-U division. This has prevented the team from seeing as much success as they would have hoped.

“I just wanted to give people a chance to play,” Fyler said,

PLEASE SEE 16-U coach, PAGE 5

adding that eight of his players are young enough that they could play in the 14-U division.

While many competitive fast-pitch teams begin their season as soon as high school softball ends, around Memorial Day weekend, Fyler decided to get off to an unusually late start for their season.

With many of the girls finishing up their freshman season of high school softball, Fyler, who also coaches the junior varsity team at Free State High School, thought the girls needed a break from the game.

After a year under its belt in the 16-U division, and with all of the players on his team being the same age as their competition, Fyler is optimistic about his team’s future.

“Next year we’ll have a solid group,” Fyler said.

Fyler said he’s really competitive at heart, but it’s more important to him to learn something while playing. The challenges that the season has brought the Phenix this season have also brought their fair share of lessons.

“I hate to lose, but it matters more to me that we find out more about ourselves and are learning more about softball,” Fyler said.

Fyler recalls a game from earlier in the season when they beat a Wichita team, 11-0. In the next game, the Phenix won 2-1. He said the second game meant more to the team because they learned more about how to play in the close game than they did in the blowout.

“After games we talk about reasons why we win and lose,” Fyler said. “You have to be able to think your way through what you do wrong and what you do right.”

Over the years, Fyler said he has mellowed out from his earlier days in coaching. He said he used to bite his nails and holler and scream at umpires.

“Sometime you can tell he wants to yell but he keeps it in,” Phenix shortstop Livi Abney said. “He’s very intense but doesn’t let it come out as being aggressive.”

Fyler said he’s used his experience to help him be a better coach now.

“I guess I’ve learned a little bit about coaching,” Fyler said. “Some kids need you to kick them in the butt to motivate them, while others work better with a pat on the back.

Now he lets his players do more of the talking for him. He said he relied on players like Abney and Julianne George to talk to the team.

“The girls know when and how to say something better than I can,” Fyler said.

One thing remains the same with his coaching philosophy. Fyler’s time as a teacher continues to influence the way he coaches.

“I’m a teacher first. I teach fundamentals,” Fyler said.

Even though he recently retired from teaching, it still hasn’t sunk in because he’s still busy teaching his team every time he coaches.

“It won’t hit me until August,” Fyler said.

The Phenix ended their season going 1-4 at nationals, but Fyler said the season still was fulfilling.

Fyler said that competitive fast-pitch softball is more than just playing games and winning. It’s the fellowship and camaraderie that is most significant.

“In 10, 15, 20 years, the girls are not going to remember what games they won and loss, ” Fyler said, “but they will remember when we all jumped into the pool with our uniforms on.”