In the spring of 2000, there was a new, albeit familiar, face on the bench for the Taunton softball program. Former freshman coach Dave Lewry was promoted to take over from legendary coach Jack Tripp, who the field is now named after, with a mandate to keep the Tigers among the best teams in the state. “Jack Tripp handed me one of the very best programs in the state,” Lewry explained. “I said to him, ‘Jack I’m going to do everything I can to keep the program at the level that you just handed it over to me,’ and his words were, I’ll never forget them, ‘You better.’”
Lewry lived up to that promise and then some, becoming a Taunton legend in his own right.
He announced late last week that he was stepping down after 20 seasons as head coach. Over those two decades, his teams made the playoffs every year, won 407 games, winning more than 80 percent of the games over that span, brought home a dozen league titles (including three in seven years in the Hockomock League), and won four state titles (the most recent coming in 2018).
“I think maybe that’s what I’m most proud of is that the program maintained this level from when I took it over from a legendary coach and kept things moving,” he explained. “There wasn’t one year that we weren’t considered at least who could win the states. Maybe not the favorite or in the top two or three, but we always had enough talent to compete in the tournament and potentially win it if we played our best.”
The decision on whether or not to retire is one that Lewry makes after every season. In the months since the Tigers had their run at back-to-back state titles ended by Bishop Feehan in the Div. 1 South semifinal, he considered family responsibilities as well as his desire to travel with his wife of nearly 49 years. In the end, Lewry, who turned 70 this year, felt now was the best time to step away.
Only Taunton athletic director Mark Ottavianelli and long-time assistant coach Paul Dominico knew how seriously Lewry was thinking about retirement. While he trusts that he is making the right decision, Lewry was overcome by emotion when he had to tell the team.
“All of the emotional aspects of it hit you when you sit and talk to the kids,” he said. “That’s when it gets tough. That’s where I was at the other day. I was a mess.
“I’m going to miss being with the kids every day. That was a big part of my enjoyment. I’m certainly going to miss the competition and the adrenaline rush that comes with that and just the excitement of being around the sport.”
Lewry knows that there will be a pang of regret when the season gets underway in a few months, although maybe not as much during those first few weeks of the spring season. “In the middle, end of March I’ll probably be pretty happy because it’s 26 degrees and you’re outside at practice,” he joked, “but maybe mid-, late-April it will start to hit me.”
Looking back on 20 years with the Tigers, Lewry has seen a number of changes in the sport and with the program. Early in his tenure, the mound was moved back from 40 feet to 43 feet, altering the way that pitchers, including Taunton star Erin Wade, approached the game. “Pitchers couldn’t just throw hard,” he said, “now they had to pitch. Now you need the breaking balls, you need the spins, the ball to move as well as being able to command.”
Club softball has also grown during his time on the bench, becoming a year-round pursuit that has developed the skills of players coming into the program but also has impacted the mentality of some players. He said, “Kids are being taught that sports are all about the individual and not about playing as a team, playing for your school, for your friends, your community. It’s too much of that idea of you showcasing your talents for the college coaches sitting in the standings watching.”
The third major change for Taunton was its move into the Hock. Since 2013, the Tigers have won the Kelley-Rex division title three times, including twice outright. Last year, Taunton edged Franklin by a game and Lewry insisted that level of competition has added more motivation for the program to improve. “That was a great thing for us,” he said of the move from the Old Colony League to the Hock. “It came at exactly the right time, and I think it’s really pushed us to go a little bit harder.”
Taunton was hardly a mystery to Hock teams when the Tigers joined the league. Many had squared off with Taunton in the playoffs and had a healthy respect for the program and for Lewry. North Attleboro coach Bill Wallace, who earned his 200th career win this past spring, first met Lewry in the South semifinals in 2003. The Rocketeers had the Tigers on the schedule for three years before becoming league rivals.
“His kids were so well-coached that if he called for a squeeze, hit and run, or double steal they always knew what to do,” Wallace said. “After games, win or lose, Dave always had something nice to say about your team and this was sincere as we had some grinders with them!”
Former Franklin coach Kate Fallon-Comeau, who will take over at King Philip this spring, has become close to Lewry during his time in the league, calling him a mentor and a friend. She praised the consistency of the program and the way Taunton teams were always prepared for the challenges that the Panthers, and other teams, presented.
“They were always the toughest team in the league to face, year after year, didn’t matter how many had graduated, there was always another fundamentally sound player to step into a vacancy,” she explained.
Fallon-Comeau added, “The game doesn’t know how old you are or what grade you are in, nor does it care and neither did Dave. He played the best 9-10 players, some being only eighth graders, and they became some of the best players the game has seen.”
Next year’s team promises to be just as talented. Taunton returns starting pitcher Kelsey White, the 2019 HockomockSports.com Player of the Year, and starting shortstop Hanna Aldrich, the 2019 Underclassman of the Year, among a host of other top players.
When asked about leaving while the team still has the potential to make a run at another state title, Lewry replied, “I’d rather leave under these circumstances knowing that the cupboard isn’t bare by any means. I’d much rather do that than wait until everyone graduated and it was a rebuilding year.”
He laughed when it was pointed out that Taunton rarely has to rebuild, adding, “That’s the great thing about coaching at Taunton, there’s always that next stud player coming through. I feel so, so fortunate to have the level of talent that we’ve had.”
The talent at Taunton remains but it will now be up to someone new to put it all together. Twenty years ago, Dave Lewry stepped into a legend’s shoes and kept the Tigers among the state’s best and now it will be someone else’s turn to do the same.