Ken Fenik had a decision to make as a young teacher and coach at Elyria West in 1991.
Would he like to be the junior varsity baseball coach at Elyria West? Or would he rather be the JV softball coach at Elyria High?
He picked softball.
Now it’s two state championships, three state runners-up, eight regional titles, a dozen district titles, 17 conference titles and nearly 450 wins later.
And neither Fenik nor the school nor Elyria softball fans have ever regretted or even doubted the decision that led to his becoming the head coach in 1995.
How could they?
For all that he and his teams have accomplished, Fenik on Saturday will join Brooke Bader, Adam Larrick, Briant McLaughlin, Jan Sito and the 1972-73 Elyria and Elyria Catholic boys basketball teams as Elyria Sports Hall of Fame inductees at Lorain County Community College’s Spitzer Center.
The late Cooper Hudnutt will also be honored with the Distinguished Service Award.
When he is officially a Hall of Famer, Fenik will also join his second cousin, Ron Fenik, a former football star at Elyria and Ohio University, who was inducted in 2011.
Among Pioneers coaches who were on the job at least 10 years, Fenik’s .851 winning percentage after 18 seasons ranks second all-time. That’s compared to legends such as Dale Reichenbach (basketball), Carol Russo (volleyball), Jim Rakestraw (tennis) and Bill Barton (football), among others. Only former wrestling coach Bill Pierson’s .859 dual-meet average in 11 seasons is better.
“I did have some apprehensions,” Fenik said of choosing softball. “I didn’t know what it would be like to coach girls. I had been coaching boys and continued to coach boys. As I went on, I found that girls work just as hard as the guys, if not harder, and they’re more coachable. It’s a good experience just to watch them grow as people.
“I think about all the girls we’ve had through the years, and when I see them I can remember something about each one of them. Now if you ask me to remember my wife’s birthday, I’m in big trouble. But I don’t regret any decision I made. I’m just thankful to Margaret Cough Wear and the people who gave me the opportunity.”
Fenik became the Pioneers’ JV coach under the leadership of Sue Cohagan. In 1994, her sixth year as head coach, Cohagan led Elyria to Erie Shore Conference, sectional, district and regional tournament championships and into the Division I state Final Four for the first time in the history of the program.
“Sue and I got along very well,” Fenik said. “I learned a lot from her and from Gordy (Sue’s dad and assistant coach).”
What he learned has helped him mold Elyria into one of the premier softball programs in the state. The Pioneers won Division I state championships in 2002 and ’09. It is just as notable, if also more frustrating, that Fenik’s teams were state runners-up three years in a row from 2006-08.
But fastpitch softball and any sort of involvement with girls athletics were foreign to him when he made his decision more than two decades ago.
A 1984 Elyria West graduate, Fenik played on the football and baseball teams. He was a 160-pound offensive guard and outside linebacker under football coaches Bill Hewitt and Jim Mosher. And he was an outfielder on Tom Kubuski’s baseball squad.
“I was always a laughingstock for Kubuski. Every year he would have us go out in the snow or on wet fields,” he recalled. “He’d tell us, ‘Take off,’ and he’d make us run like 100 yards to the left or 100 yards to the right and he’d hit a fungo.
“I told him one year the day before practice, ‘Hey, I’ll go out there, but I’m not getting my feet wet.’ I had a surprise for him. I had on those big yellow boots like firemen wear that I got from my dad. Kubuski still remembers that to this day. He says he couldn’t believe those big yellow boots I had that went up to my thighs.”
As he gained experience, Fenik developed the coaching philosophy he lives by to this day.
“One of the main things I believe is you have to have discipline on a team,” he said. “I believe in hard work and just because some teams are winners, not only in softball but when they go into life, I like them to continue being winners. You know, class acts.
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of working with young kids, to see how they progress from the time they’re in Little League in the summer to how they mature, how they become leaders. To me, that’s what it’s about. That’s why I got into teaching and coaching.
“We try to get the most out of a kid,” Fenik said. “We don’t ever want a player coming back and saying, ‘I wish you’d have taught me this or made me work harder and I could have been better.’ We don’t like what-ifs. Our practices are not easy, but over the 18-plus years, it’s worked for us.
“It is very gratifying. There’s been a lot of heartache through the years, too. But just watching teams and how they dealt with and fought through different things is rewarding. When I see them step it up and be successful, it’s awesome to watch.”
The highlights of Fenik’s career to this point are easy to identify.
“Obviously, it was the state championships, but I can honestly say it was the runner-ups, too,” he said. “I mean, to go to state three years in a row and lose it — it’s so hard to get there. To see that team in ’09 finally break through was awesome.
“One of the greatest games ever was the year before we won it, the one that went extra innings. That could have gone either way.”
Fenik was referring to the Pioneers’ 10-inning, 1-0 loss to North Canton Hoover in the 2008 state final. It was a heartbreaker that started in daylight and ended under the lights.
“For those kids to come back in ’09 — I mean, they could have totally crumbled the year after we lost,” he said. “Obviously, that was Tess (Sito) and that was a good bunch of people.”
That was the team that routed — and threatened to mercy-rule — Hudson 10-1 in the championship game. It avenged Hudson’s 4-0 win over Elyria in the 2007 state final.
“The whole tournament run, you can always think of memories,” Fenik said. “You remember the years in the Wendy’s (Spring Classic in Ashland), playing some of the best teams around, trips to Florida and playing at Disney World and I know a lot of kids will never forget that experience. Those were some great times.”
Fenik and his wife Allison have two daughters, Calli and Molly, and a wiener dog named Max.
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.