Tracy Keefer admits she’s mellowed.

Her assistant, and the woman Keefer hopes will succeed her at Dacula, chuckles.

“A lot,” said Kristin Croteau, who transferred to Dacula when the softball program and Keefer were just getting started.

“But you know, when I’m mad, they know,” Keefer said. “When I mean business, they know. But I have mellowed quite a bit over the years. You just do.”

Keefer, who is retiring after this season, started the Dacula fastpitch program from scratch in 1996 and made it a consistent contender. The Falcons, with Croteau in the lineup, made it to the state tournament in just their second year of varsity play and returned the following season. Since then, they’ve played in every classification, going up and down as new schools opened and siphoned off students, and have won more than 350 games. Dacula was 10-3 in Region 8-AAAAAA heading into this week’s slate of games and right on the heels of Apalachee.

But Keefer is ready to hand over the reins.

“I’ve known this would be it,” she said.”It’s not that I don’t love softball anymore, because I do. I mean, that’s been my life.

“The fun part is the kids, the game, the competition. The kids who you know you’re getting something out of, who love it as much as you do. That’s what you love. The coaching is not the issue.”

Much of what high school coaches do isn’t on the field.

“Even in the offseason, you spend all your time thinking about planning and organizing and fundraising,” Keefer said. “It has gotten easier over the years, but it’s a lot. It’s time. It’s time to start enjoying life instead of being tied down (to the schedule).

“Kristin has taken on a lot of the responsibility and it’s made it a lot easier for me the last couple of years. I thought I would do my 30 years. It’ll be 29 ½ that I retire at.”

Keefer was a standout player at Parkview and then at Limestone College in South Carolina. She didn’t know what she wanted beyond softball.

“Honestly, I wanted to play ball,” Keefer said.

Even before she finished college, she started coaching. Keefer returned one summer and helped with the travel team she once played for. Even after she finished college, Keefer wasn’t necessarily thinking about teaching. The dad of one of her former travel ball players was a principal in Gwinnett at the time and helped Keefer. She taught under a provisional for a year at what is now Phoenix.

“I realized, yeah, that’s what I wanted to do,” Keefer said. “I went back (to Limestone) and did my student teaching.”

She got a job at a middle school in Gaffney, S.C., and stayed for 2 ½ years before coming back to Gwinnett. Keefer was hired at Dacula’s middle school and was coaching basketball there, along with softball, when the high school wanted to start its fastpitch program.

“At the time, I guess, I was the only one around with experience,” Keefer said. “I played in college. They asked me, was I interested.

“We had slow and fast the one year and it turned over. Which I had had experience with because I played slow pitch all my life and then switched for college. You adapt quickly. If you want to be successful, you have no choice.”

She learned from those around her — and made sure to hire good people for her staff, including bringing Tim Maloney over from Berkmar in the early 2000s.

“The biggest thing that’s always set with me from him is that it is the kids’ game, that it has nothing to do with us adults,” Keefer said. “We can’t make it about ourselves and that’s always sat in my mind and I’ve approached it differently.”

She has adjusted to changing attitudes over the years. Things are not the same as when she — or Croteau — grew up here.

“Kids are different,” Keefer said. “They feel entitled. They don’t want to work for it. They want it to be all in the here and now. Your most successful kids are the ones who still want to work — but they’re fewer and farther between. The travel-ball mentality has a lot to do with it.”

There were days during Croteau’s playing career when Keefer had to shoo kids out after practice.

“They were willing to lay it all out on the line in practices and games,” Keefer said. “Those kids didn’t question it. It was will you throw me some more batting practices. It was some you had to send home.”

Croteau was in awe of Keefer when she arrived as a sophomore in 1997. And still is, frankly.

“We respected her so much,” she said. “She said jump and we said how high.”

Which doesn’t mean they didn’t misbehave. But usually they didn’t make the same mistakes twice.

As the two women chuckled over old stories, it sounded like the punishment for poor choices was always running. Once a group of players who liked to make prank phone calls had to sprint lines holding a phone. It wasn’t cellphone sized, either.

Also, always be prepared to run.

Croteau once had to run a hill in bare feet when she opted to wear flip flops to a summer camp.

“Everything you do matters,” Croteau said. “Not just if you got a hit. It’s if you forgot your cleats and you don’t play. If not, then it wasn’t important.

“It was more the lessons you learned, the love that you had. Like, we’re one of her kids and we knew that. She would do anything for us.”

Keefer has always told her players to leave the umpires to her.

“She tells us, when they make a bad call, don’t worry — I’m going up to bat for you,” Croteau said. “And she always has the right words with the umpires. It makes them think. The approach I’ve learned just watching her coach. You see it as a player one way, but now, being by her side is a whole different situation.”

Croteau, not unlike her mentor, wasn’t thinking beyond softball when she went off to college.

“That was my life,” Croteau said. “I went to college to play softball — and then I guess I had to get a major.

“I was thinking about coaching. I have a business management degree. I went to coach in college and we sat down for a long time, talking. She made me realize. She said, ‘What do you love about it?’ I said, ‘I want to see the kids move on, have their success.’ She was like, ‘Why don’t you come coach with me and see what you think?’”

Croteau started as a community coach with Dacula in 2006 and, at Keefer’s suggestion, tried being a substitute teacher.

“I never looked back,” Croteau said. “It’s scary how much we are alike, how much I’ve learned.

“It’s not just all about softball. You learn more about life. That’s one of her main goals, that you represent yourself, your family and your school, and you take pride in everything.”

Keefer already has handed some of the responsibilities off to Croteau and would like to see her inherit the program she made her life’s work.

“It’s hard to leave something you build from the ground up,” Keefer said. “Not that I hadn’t thought about it over the years. There were times where the opportunity was available to move on, but it always goes back to this is what I built. It’s hard to walk away from something you’ve put so much into.

“Again, it’s loyalty to your home. This was home. So many people put so much into the program to get it going, the things we’ve built at our field and established, it’s hard to walk away from something you put your heart and soul into.”

Keefer wants to retire while she can enjoy it, though.

“And I want to retire when I’m still giving everything,” she said. “I know I’ve mellowed and I’m a little more laid-back than I used to be, but I’m still very competitive at heart. I still lose it at times in big games. I still love that part of it. I don’t want to be one of those coaches that hangs around for the paycheck. I said I’d never be one of those.

“But I want to be on my own schedule for a change. It’s time.”

Unless Croteau can change her mind.

“She’s going to come out of retirement,” Croteau said with a grin. “We’ve planted the seed (for her to be a community coach). We just keep watering.”

“Who knows?” Keefer said with her own small smile. “I might get bored.”

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