Billy – who would ever dream of calling him William?! – Simms has the physique that any coach would recognize. The square stance of a wrestler, the solidness of a football player, the movements of a power hitter on the diamond. Add it up and you have the farm kid who graduated from West Greene High School in 1987 as a three-letter team player, then returned to coach the sons and daughters of his high school friends and neighbors. When the Lady Pioneers single-A softball team won two state championships in a row in 2017 and 2018, parades and honors were in order. But behind all the commotion is a coach who never misses a chance to stay out of the limelight and whose big, happy smile tells you he likes it that way.
Billy invited me to his office at West Greene High School this summer to talk about softball and the girls he’s been coaching for nearly 20 years, some since they were playing T-ball as second graders. In between praise for his players – “a good kid makes the coach look good” – come snippets of his life. “I was born and raised on Aleppo Road, six houses down from Centennial Church, second oldest of four boys. I live on Iron Rock Road now, just up from the school. If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I’ll be back at the farm baling for my dad.”
His office is papered with newspaper clippings and photographs of the team wins and athletes worth celebrating. Equipment squares off with rows of desks – this is the inner sanctum of Mr. Simms, athletic director. He tells me he left Aleppo Elementary in 1982 when seventh grade was moved to the new middle school wing of the high school. His teachers and coaches would be both his friends and his peers when he returned to teach and coach himself.
“Brian Jackson was my history teacher and my wrestling and football coach. He was a good athlete, and we hunted together. Now he’s the superintendent and I teach history and social studies. I went to Waynesburg College because I wanted to work here,” Simms says. “I never wanted to do anything else.”
It was in middle school that Billy and the rest of the community realized the girls varsity softball team could play to win. Varsity teams were still relatively new – until 1975, girls were relegated to the Girls Athletic Club, playing intramural games. It didn’t take too many seasons for the varsity players of West Greene to show their stuff.
“I was a freshman on the team in 1983 when we made it to the state playoffs,” middle school math teacher Shelly Carter Richardson remembers. “Back then, we didn’t have T-ball or any other organized teams before high school. We were just country kids; we got together and played because we loved it. Our parents played men’s softball in Graysville, so the kids in the neighborhood played throw-tag-pitch, nothing serious. By the time we got to ninth grade, we could throw and catch and were ready to play.”
Family involvement is a tradition that, happily, continues, Billy assures me. “Our parents and grandparents are the driving force. They get them involved early and they’re always there for them, coaching the teams, raising money through the boosters, doing whatever needs done. We couldn’t do it without their support.”
After getting his dream job at West Greene, Billy split his schedule between coaching and teaching. When his high school baseball coach Larry Piper retired in 2001, the position of athletic director was a natural next step.
Billy’s own love of softball lead to 16 years playing in the International Softball Congress, taking on teams from Moundsville, New Martinsville and beyond, to the World Softball competitions in Kimberly, Wis., in 1998.
At school, he became assistant softball coach in 1999 while continuing to coach football and baseball, but by 2005 was coaching softball full time. Kids he’d gone to school with were raising families. In time, he would be coaching that next generation, going to games, bringing up his own girls to take their first real pitches from the coach as they transitioned into the live action of a ball coming at them. Little League softball teams play in divisions that match their ages, starting with under age 10 and moving up in increments of two years until age 18. Now, West Greene has Little League ball teams, and home games are played in Rogersville.
“I like to attend Little League games, see the young players coming up, pitch to them, give them tips,” Simms says. “My own daughters play and everybody knows it’s performance over entitlement. We play teams from everywhere, most are from schools much bigger than ours. Our girls have this competitive attitude of seeing other good teams as a model of something to aspire to.”
So what’s the secret sauce that makes the Lady Pioneers so special? Coach Simms uses the word symbiotic to describe the way players support each other to be their best, the sisters, cousins and classmates who have been playing together since preschool who are now a formidable force. Add to that the coaches and families working with them, making sure the resources for success are there, making sure everybody gets to play as often as possible and the symbiosis is complete.
For five years now, the boosters have raised the thousands of dollars it takes to finish out the spring season at Myrtle Beach with four days of games for the starting lineup and junior varsity games for the rest. No one sits on the bench, “reserves push the reserves, competition breeds success.”
The sound of the ball hitting Coach Simms’ glove is like a rifle crack. It makes me jump. Beside me, in the shade of the dugout, Jade Renner’s mom, Misty, laughs. Yes, that was a fastball. Now for the change-up. It will look the same, but … There’s a surprisingly softer thunk as the next ball smacks leather. Behind the chain link fence that surrounds the field, 11-year-old Payton Gilbert, head tucked inside a web of protective gear, watches intently. Jade, a junior this year, is having her pitching movements critiqued by a private coach who stands nearby, watching every move, stepping in between pitches to teach a lesson that Payton is happy to suss out from the sidelines.
“You see, same motion, different grip,” Simms informs her as he throws another ball back to Jade. “Stick around, you can pitch to me next. I’ll show you.”
We’re at Rogersville Park’s Rice Energy Field, with its Home of the Lady Pioneers banner flying proudly at the gate. It’s the end of the first day of school and my chance to get a photo of Simms in his element, working with varsity and Little League players, helping them be the best that they can be. Jade taps the ground with one cleated toe, smacks her leg with her mitt, winds up and her left arm turns into a blur.
Jade and her teammates have a summer of recreational softball under their belts already and more games coming up this fall, games that will run through October and keep her on the road playing teams from other schools, honing her pitches with each throw, with each batter she faces. She has this in common with Payton – they both began playing at age 5, and their families are with them every step of the way.
Jade’s sister Madison, who helped pitch the Lady Pioneers to two championships, just moved into her dorm room at California University of Pennsylvania, Misty tells me. “She switched schools at the last minute because she saw the campus and liked it. Cal U. over the years has had a consistently good program. Maddy met the coaches and liked them. Now she wants to play.”
That’s the difference a coach makes.