Many across Mount Pleasant wait eagerly through the fall and winter to hear these two little words – words that signal the beginning of spring, words that symbolize a tradition passed down from generation to generation, words ingrained into the very culture of the community.
Noah Koster, a member of the Mount Pleasant High School Varsity Baseball Team, attempts to steal a base during the team’s game against Arthur Hill High School on May 20, 2019.
Local legends live on, fuel future players
“Baseball has been pretty strong here for years,” says Luke Epple Sr., Head Coach of the Mount Pleasant High School Varsity Baseball Team. “It was a few generations ago that started that tradition of success, and I think that’s what’s kept it going.”
Through the years, those involved with baseball and softball in Mount Pleasant have passed down stories of local legends – stories such as that of John Keehbauch.
“Many people talk about how he would have been in the pros. He was that good, but he had to go to war,” says Epple. “That’s the story I’ve been told.”
Keehbauch, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 86, was a pitcher from Leaton. He was, according to his obituary, the first in Isabella County to enlist in the Army when WWII broke out. Soon after returning home in 1945, Keehbauch married and had nine children.
“What he loved doing most was playing baseball. John was scouted by the pros and offered a contract to play baseball professionally as a pitcher which he declined due to his commitment to his new family,” states his obituary.
Another local baseball story involves Epple’s own family – specifically, his father, Joe Epple, who served as the Head Coach of the Varsity Baseball Team at Mount Pleasant High School before retiring in 1994 and passing the title on to his son.
Joe Epple was one of trio of “Leaton Boys” as they have been referred to. The trio was made up of Joe Epple, Frank Demski, and Dean Kreiner.
“Three young 18-year-olds from Leaton were recruited by CMU in 1954, all played at CMU under Bill Theunissen for 4 years, and all three came back to Mt. Pleasant High School to teach and coach,” says Luke Epple Sr.
The legacy of each of the three “Leaton Boys” lives on in Mount Pleasant, honoring their contributions to the game of baseball in the town.
Joe Epple’s love of baseball continues impacting the sport locally through the Joe and Jeanne Epple Family Fund at the Mount Pleasant Area Community Foundation; Frank Demski Field at Mount Pleasant High School forever remembers the impression Demski’s coaching career left at the high school; and the legacy of Dean Kreiner, who went on to coach at Central Michigan University, is honored through his No. 33 uniform, which was retired in April, 2018 during a ceremony at Theunissen Stadium – named after the famed CMU Head Baseball Coach, who Kreiner once played for. When Kreiner left the program in 1998, it was as the all-time winningest coach in the program’s history.
Softball finds home base later, but with big success
While baseball has had a longstanding tradition being passed down from generation to generation not only as America’s pastime, but as Mount Pleasant’s as well, bringing softball into the picture as a serious sport for girls happened more recently.
In 1971, the Mount Pleasant Girls Softball League (then part of Little League) was formed. Getting a softball program started from the ground up was no easy task, though. Kaye Bouck was one of many people who were instrumental at the time.
“Kaye is the foundation of girls’ softball in Mt. Pleasant,” says Ted McIntyre, Varsity Softball Coach at Mount Pleasant High School.
Bouck began coaching during the league’s second year and continued to do so for over 20 years, during which she coached her three daughters. Bouck has also organized tournaments, and continues to be involved with the league.
“She has been instrumental in making Mount Pleasant a softball town and it’s been a place where teams have enjoyed coming to play because they knew they would come and have a well-organized tournament with good fields,” says Buck Buchanan, who also began coaching in the Girls Softball League in its second year and continued to do so for 35 years. Additionally, Buchanan coached softball at Mount Pleasant High School from 1976-2010 (with one year interrupted due to a layoff in 1982). “Kaye championed girls playing softball forever. I can’t say enough about Kaye.”
Bouck, however, is modest about the endeavor.
“I think everyone should do something to volunteer,” she says.
In 1972, Title IX was passed by congress and that was a game-changer. However, change still took time. It wasn’t until 1975 that Mount Pleasant High School had its own softball team, which was started by McIntyre.
“I never felt like anybody was trying to stop girls’ athletics from happening – it just took time to make it happen,” says McIntyre, now in his 44th year coaching at the high school.
McIntyre says he believes the deep-rooted baseball traditions that were in Mount Pleasant helped encourage parents to get on board with a softball program.
“I’ve always thought that that baseball mentality helped the softball program,” he says. “It was just a dad working with his daughter instead of his son.”
However, as with any new program, there were growing pains –which were felt during the first season of tryouts.
Luke Epple Sr., Head Coach of the Mount Pleasant High School Varsity Baseball Team, talks with members of his team before their game against Arthur Hill High School on May 20, 2019.
“We broke windows in the gym and the windows were 20 feet high,” says Ted McIntyre, explaining that many of the girls who were trying out had never played before. “The truth was there were about five ninth-graders who had actually played softball. So, in 1975, the best players at Mount Pleasant were actually ninth-graders.”
Those five girls had played in the Girls Softball League, McIntyre said.
“The early success in the high school program – and I’m going to say at Sacred Heart at well – was Kaye’s program,” he added.
Between the summer softball league and the high school, girls’ softball teams in Mount Pleasant gained recognition – recognition that skyrocketed in 1977, when a team from the Girls Softball League went to play at the World Series in Oregon.
“It was a Walt Disney show come to life,” reminisces Buchanan, who was part of coaching the team. Bouck was team mom.
Buchanan remembers that after each game the team won leading up to the World Series parents would have to get together to make plans for the next game and arrange for time off work.
“A ton of parents – nearly every single one – were in Oregon,” he says proudly.
While the team placed fourth in the country they still came home to Mount Pleasant with a great accomplishment.
“That trip in 1977, needless to say, caught the attention of everybody… from that point on, the league took off,” Buchanan says, “We had tons of girls who wanted to play ball.”
Luke Epple Sr., Head Coach of the Mount Pleasant High School Varsity Baseball Team, hits a baseball during team warmups before their game against Arthur Hill High School on May 20, 2019.
Tradition continues -- one backyard at a time
The names of people who have made the baseball and softball programs successful in Mount Pleasant are too numerous to state, but their impact has been felt by all.
“The thing that has always sold me on the success of the program is the number of quality people that have helped over the years,” says McIntyre.
Many of their names continue to be associated with the sport – whether posted on a stadium, listed in a Hall of Fame, or carried on by their children.
“My kids have all coached in some capacity – baseball or softball,” says Bouck of her five children.
Buchanan’s daughter also followed in his footsteps and coached softball at the high school level for 10 years. In fact, in one memorable game, Buchanan and his daughter coached against each other.
“It was the treat of my life coaching against my kid,” he says. “We ended up winning that game.”
Luke Epple Sr. has had three daughters play softball, the youngest of whom recently signed a letter of intent to play at Mid-Michigan Community College in the coming year. His son, Luke Epple Jr. played baseball through college and now helps coach at Mt. Pleasant High School.
As other sports gain traction in the area, some students are leaving baseball and softball to pursue other athletics. McIntyre says the soccer team, for example, has impacted the number of girls who try out for the softball team. However, the rich history of baseball and softball will continue to be passed down from generation to generation – starting in the backyard.
“It’s just passed down from grandparents to parents to kids,” says Epple Sr. “They get them out in the yard to play ball with them.”