POLSON — Larry Smith was the head coach of the Polson softball team for 31 years before announcing his retirement in 2018.
Smith led Polson to seven state championships on the diamond, all after the year 2000. He was instrumental in bringing youth softball programs to the Polson area, as well as the construction of Polson’s softball complex, which was completed in 1996. Polson hosted the 2001 and 2002 State A softball tournaments and won back-to-back State A softball titles, the first two in program history. The Pirates won three consecutive titles in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
During his tenure at Polson, Smith was named the Montana Coaches Association coach of the year nine times. He was inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017.
Smith, who now dedicates most of his time to his business, Smith Paving & Contracting, and watching softball, recently sat down with MTN Sports to reflect on his time as the Polson softball coach and how the game has grown over the years.
MTN Sports: Thirty-one years as the Polson softball coach, what prompted the retirement?
Larry Smith: “Just the time, I guess. I wasn’t really eager to do it, but I thought it was time, and of course my wife, she thought it was well, well past time. We kind of agreed that we’ll do it now.”
MTN: Do you miss it at all?
Smith: “I miss it very much. It was such a huge part of my life for more than 31 years, because I started prior to that. First two years here I just assisted who was the varsity coach then, Garth Cox. Then I took over the varsity job in ’88 and had it ever since.”
MTN: So ever since the Polson softball team has been around, you’ve had a part in that team?
Smith: “Absolutely, I did, yes.”
MTN: When did you first take an interest in fast pitch?
Smith: “I played it myself and really enjoyed it as I went to college at Northern Montana in Havre. I went there with the intent of playing baseball. Well, back then they’d dropped baseball from all the Montana colleges. There was a fast pitch league there and a couple of classmates had a team and they were short a player. They heard I played, so they invited me out. I fell for the game then. They had quite a men’s league in Havre at that time, fast pitch. To me, it was a much more exciting sport and faster sport than baseball and I really, really got into it.”
MTN: Did you meet anybody during your time playing in college that you still have a relationship with still today?
Smith: “There’s a few of them around. Not too many of us around anymore.”
MTN: You won seven state titles, all after the year 2000, nine-time coach of the year, you’ve been inducted into the Montana Coaches Hall of Fame. You have quite the legacy in Polson, are there any memories that stand out above the rest.
Smith: “A lot of numbers of memories I have, and definitely most of them are good, but there’s some bad ones, too. I think just building the whole program and that beautiful complex we got and the friendships I made with the parents and the adults at that time building that complex, it was a tight-knit bunch of fathers and mothers that got that going and got it done. Didn’t cost the school district or tax payers anything, everything was all voluntary help. Materials, we would beg and borrow and whatever to get the materials, and we got a lot of donations.”
MTN: Does that kind of just show the strength that the community has and how it was behind the Polson softball team going into building that complex?
Smith: “I don’t know if it was the whole community at the time. I think we had to gain the community’s respect, because I remember when we first started out there wasn’t a lot of respect for the girls playing fast pitch. ‘They can’t play fast pitch, they’ve got to play slow pitch.’ Once the girls started playing fast pitch, there was no way they were going to play slow pitch. It was a boring game for them.”
MTN: How quickly did the girls get competitive? With the beginning of the softball program in ’85, you took over in ’88, how quickly were they competitive?
Smith: “Initially that first couple of years, we were pretty competitive. It was a younger bunch that I’d work with in the summer. It was my daughter who got me started into the game, so I was working with them before fast pitch ever even got into the high schools. I think they got off to a pretty good start the first couple of years. Then it fell off flat because there were no other youth programs going. But by, I would say, ’94 we really started to jump up competitively and by the late 90s we were a very competitive team throughout the state.”
MTN: You mentioned the softball complex, you were instrumental in bringing that here to Polson, four fields there, what was winning a state championship on your home field like?
Smith: “That was amazing. I never saw so many rough, tough fathers with tears in their eyes after they won that first championship game. That was a great feeling. It was quite a bookending, quite the story. It’s like I told Rick Meidinger, who more or less headed up the construction of the complex, ‘It was just a dream of mine and you made it a reality.'”
MTN: How has the game of softball grown since you’ve been in Polson? You mentioned there was no youth team to support the high school teams.
Smith: “It’s really grown. Once the high school girls started competing and playing, and once we got that youth program going in the summer, then it really took a big leap and bound. It was probably the fastest growing sport at the time in the community.”
MTN: You guys have the SPLASH Tournament here in the summers, what is that all about?
Smith: “It was something, I can’t remember, I think it was Paul Noble that got it started, but we decided to have our own invitational tournament. It was going to be a fundraiser, which it became a huge fundraiser and was very successful right off the bat. Then we continued to have it, it was our big-money income for us that carry all these programs that we still have today.”
MTN: How long has that SPLASH Tournament been going on?
Smith: “You got me there. I don’t remember the exact date on that one, I don’t.”
MTN: You’re obviously retired now, you have the construction business. How’s business been?
Smith: “Business has been really doing well, especially the last couple of years have been super.”
MTN: Still afford you some time to get to softball games?
Smith: “Oh yeah, I do. The business, I’m not that tied down to so much anymore. My son and my daughter do the day-to-day running of the business.”