"Ever since I was born I had a softball in my hand. Softball has been in my blood since day one."
For Central Christian College of Kansas head softball coach Aaron Annis, who was hired on July 1 to take over a struggling Tigers' program, going into coaching softball was never the question; it was only a matter of when and where. That's because the first place he went when leaving the hospital after birth was to a softball game, coached by his father Jeff Annis, and as they say, the rest is history.
The younger Annis began his coaching journey while playing football at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was a student assistant on the softball team when not filling his role as punter on the Yellowjackets national championship football team. He continued both his football career and softball student assistant roles at Tabor College in Hillsboro, before graduating in 2013.
Aaron's first paid coaching job came the very next year at Sterling College in Sterling, where Annis filled the position of lead assistant for two years. Upon hearing of the head softball coach opening at Moundridge High School and at the urging of his then future father-in-law, Annis was hired by the Wildcats in the summer of 2015 and would go on to post a two-year record of 22-20, leading his team to an appearance in the Kansas 2A state championship tournament following the 2017 campaign. All of these stops prepared him for his challenge of running the Tiger's program but, for the son of a Minnesota coaching legend, it was the influence of his dad that directed his path into the coaching ranks to begin with.
"One hundred percent," said Aaron. "Ever since I was born I had a softball in my hand. Softball has been in my blood since day one. Watching my dad coach at the various levels he has, from going to tournaments with him when I was six to coaching many of my classmates in high school to watching what he accomplished at the college level, all that makes me push myself to try to be at least as half as good as he is."
Half as good as his father Jeff Annis would still be very successful. The elder Annis coached 22 years at Maple River High School in Mapleton, Minnesota where he amassed a record of 463-84 including 21 conference titles, 15 state tournament appearances and state titles in 1992, 1996 and 2001.
Jeff then moved on the Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he spent the next 11 years rebuilding the Gusties program. Before retiring in 2016 he skippered Gustavus to a 325-134-1 record, qualified his team for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament all 15 years, winning the tournament title in 2015 and the regular season title in 2003 and 2009. His 2009 team advanced to the NCAA Division III World Series for the first time in the program's history, finishing in third place while setting a school record for wins in a season at 42.
"It's always good when someone wants to do what you did or liked what you did and they want to do it as well" said Jeff of Aaron following in his footsteps. "It's fun seeing that rub off on him and I've told him that whatever I can do to help I'll do. I think it's good."
Aaron inherits a program that is a combined 85-361 over the past 12 seasons, with the 2013-14 finish of 14-38 being the high watermark. Central Athletic Director Twiggs Reed said his expectations for his new coach can be boiled down to three things: the ability to recruit, the ability to lead people and the ability to coach the sport. In hiring Annis he felt he possessed skills in all three areas.
"I'm really trying to build programs here," stated Reed. "In the past there has been a revolving door a little bit so we're really trying to change that by taking care of our coaches the best we can. When I look at Aaron and what he did at Moundridge, I think he made them better. His strengths fit in really good with softball with his biggest being coaching pitching. I don't care whether it is little league or college, in baseball or softball if you don't have great pitching you're not going to win."
Icing on the cake for the Tiger's Annis is his wife Ashlee already being on staff at Central, as she begins her second year as the head cheer and dance coach. His familiarity with the people and environment on campus through his wife's experience played a role in luring him to the job, he said. With offices adjacent to one-another and the recruiting pool filled with common prospects how will this new dynamic effect the husband and wife team?
"It makes recruiting a lot different because we do it together and go on trips together and kind of give each other tips," remarked Ashlee. "He's kind of given me a little more energy when it comes to recruiting having that new excitement and honeymoon phase with his new job. If we find a recruit that is good at both sports I guess we'll have to arm wrestle to see who gets her."
For Aaron his goals for the program are to get to 20 to 30 wins a season and make a run for the conference title by year four. He went on to say that first things must come first, which is winning the first ball game and being competitive in the Sooner Athletic Conference, which Central Christian College has joined and will see its first season of action in this year. As for the most pressing immediate need, he summed it up in one word: win!
"They've never won more than 14 games in a season but we're going to break that this year," Annis said. "We're going to recruit and recruit and recruit until we have 50 girls here and then I can pick and choose who I want to play and where I want to play them."
The 2017-18 schedule for the Tigers is yet to be completed but for the younger Annis the work and preparation is well underway. And he needs just 767 more wins to pass his hero and dad; let the journey begin.
Contact Matt Cole by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MacSentinel.