By Rick Assad
When Mike Delaney was positioned in the dugout, he was often soft spoken and under control, but when he did speak it carried gravitas.
A winning softball coach whose teams failed to qualify for the CIF Southern Section playoffs only three times over 14 seasons, Delaney began his tenure at Village Christian High in 2004 and ended it in 2012 and then had a stint at Burbank that commenced in 2013 and finished in 2019.
The Crusaders failed to make the postseason twice across eight years and the Bulldogs once in six.
Coaches accumulate wins and losses on their resume, but ultimately, it’s about those players between the white lines.
“I learned that high school athletes are resilient. They love to be challenged and they want an environment that allows them to ask questions,” explained Delaney, who is now a volunteer coach at El Camino College in Torrance. “They handle the ups and downs of a season better than some coaches do. Most of all I think that a majority of them become students of the game and have a passion for the sport.”
Delaney’s rise to being a head coach began innocently when as a senior at Burroughs he agreed to help a friend coach a recreational league softball team.
From that, Delaney developed a love for the strategy, teaching the game and wanting to assemble a squad that could compete.
Under Delaney’s leadership and field acumen, the Crusaders and the Bulldogs combined to advance to the semifinals three times and the quarterfinals on three occasions.
“I think the success I had was tied to a few things. I never thought I knew it all,” he said. “I wanted to keep learning the game and pass that on to my teams. I’m a good listener. I took concerns brought to me seriously.”
Delaney, a four-star master coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association who sits on numerous committees, added: “Our athletes might not have liked the answer at times, but they appreciated that I listened. Being flexible with the schedules high school athletes keep is also important and in the end I tried to make the game fun and the practice field their escape from their other pressures,” he said.
Delaney said the athlete is always the focal point. “Successful high school athletes have the desire to compete and do not let failure keep them down for long,” he stated. “They rebound faster. Not only are they high achievers on the field, but they are motivated in the classroom as well. They compete constantly in almost every aspect of daily life.”
It was because of who Delaney coached that helped shape his overall success.
“My biggest career highlight is seeing an athlete succeed. Reaching goals they set and later watching them succeed and contribute in life,” he said. “From a personal side, I take pride in guiding teams to over 200 wins in my career, but the credit goes to the athletes who competed in those games.”
Delaney, who is also on the NFCA speakers group and is available to run clinics, added: “From a team perspective, I think winning the High Desert Classic in my first season at Burbank was a great experience,” he noted. “We beat Highland with Rachel Garcia on the mound, 1-0 in nine innings to advance to the championship game against West Ranch.”
Delaney went on: “We won on a walk-off home run by Julia Duarte. The Highland game was phenomenal to watch,” he said. “Caitlyn Brooks versus [Rachel] Garcia, two of the top pitchers in the country at that time. But it was a team effort with outstanding defensive plays, timely base running and doing the little things extremely well.”
How extraordinary were those three? Garcia starred at UCLA where she paced the Bruins to the 2019 Women’s College World Series title and was named the Most Outstanding Player.
Duarte attended the University of Pennsylvania and played on the women’s softball team, but her career was sidetracked to a large degree due to injuries.
Brooks played at the University of Notre Dame where she was selected the Atlantic Coast Conference Most Valuable Player as a senior.
Getting the maximum on the field and in the classroom from each player was paramount for Delaney.
“My philosophy was that our teams would be held to a higher standard. Be role models and leaders in the classroom, on the field and in the community,” he said. “Over the years we had over 100 student-athletes eligible for recognition as an Academic All-American awarded by the NFCA. We also had the philosophy that we would get one percent better every day. Commit to the little things and do them extremely well. Be selfless and push your teammate every day.”
Coaching involves ups and downs and that includes top-of-the-line mentors.
“I think every coach remembers the losses more than the wins. Most will point to a decision or two we made during a game as the reason we lost,” Delaney offered. “I don’t know very many good coaches that placed the blame solely on the players. But as I got older, I understood that if we competed to the best of our ability, that was all we could ask for.”
Delaney continued: “That is what I tried to stress to our teams. If we competed to the very best of our ability, whether we won or lost, was going to define who we were,” he noted. “I wanted our opponent to walk off the field saying we just played a really good team.”
No player wants to fail, but getting a hit in every at-bat isn’t easy, nor is a pitcher retiring every batter.
“My biggest satisfaction as a head coach is watching the transformation in confidence, athletic skill and social skills from a young freshman to a seasoned senior,” Delaney said. “Watching an athlete succeed in a big moment is gratifying. Teaching them to handle a loss in a big moment is harder, but sometimes more rewarding.”
Making a difference was important for Delaney. “The biggest life lesson I tried to impart was to make a difference. I also stressed learning to accept your role,” he said. “Life isn’t always fair, but teams that are successful have 100 percent buy-in. High school age athletes need to learn that once they are out in the working world, being able to work well with others is crucial to their success. I think athletics prepare them for that challenge. In high school time management is critical. We would teach them to put their day into buckets. Whatever bucket you were dealing with at the moment needed 100 percent of your attention.”
In the end, it’s the impact on people that truly matters. “I think my legacy will be that I gave back to the game,” Delaney said. “I cared about my players and wanted them all to succeed.”