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Death of Pasco kids' coach leaves void in community

The adults, as they were prone to do, sat around the table in a cluttered room above the concession stand hashing out the matters that accompany running a Little League organization of more than 800 players.

We need to form a committee, one said, to install the sponsors' advertising signs on the outfield fences.

It brought an incredulous response.

Forget it. You got the signs? Let's go hang 'em.

That was Harry Olsen III. He was too busy rolling up his shirtsleeves to be distracted by the formality of a committee. Olsen was engulfed by an overwhelming enthusiasm to guide young athletes. Unlike many of us, his volunteering didn't end with the conclusion of his own children's games because his commitment to the community and its youngsters extended beyond the sixth inning. You'd see him flipping burgers at the concession stand, lining the soccer fields at 8 on a Saturday morning, or putting on the umpire's gear when the rest of the parents declined that thankless chore.

Over the past nine years, he was a director, coach and manager at the Land O'Lakes Little League, was a founding member of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association, and served as an assistant baseball and softball coach at Wiregrass Ranch High School. All those groups now face a significant void. Olsen died of apparent heart failure Oct. 23, a day after collapsing at his job. He was 42. Surviving are his wife, Sarah, and three children — daughters Grace and Anna, and the oldest, Harry IV, a sophomore baseball player at Wiregrass Ranch.

Four nights ago, a distressed community of parents and children gathered alongside a baseball field at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex to grieve. Seventy-two youngsters, all of whom had been coached by Olsen, walked the bases in an impromptu tribute. The Wiregrass Ranch team led the pack and, as the first players touched home plate, they pointed skyward. Some blew kisses.

That would have annoyed Olsen, someone remarked. He would have wanted the players to run.

Olsen, it seemed, never stopped running between the baseball diamond in Land O'Lakes and the soccer pitch in Wesley Chapel. He was a leader, dedicating his time and effort toward the betterment of the sometimes-rival sports communities, both of which sought upgraded athletic facilities from Pasco County earlier this decade.

Tired of kids playing soccer on a spit of turf earmarked for commercial development at Meadow Pointe, Olsen, Tom FitzSimons, and 10 others pitched in $100 each to start the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association. It has grown into an umbrella group of more than 3,000 families playing nine sports and now has the sprawling Wesley Chapel District Park as its home.

Olsen wasn't shy about nagging county commissioners for the playing fields to which, he said, the community's children were entitled. He lobbied unsuccessfully for a new taxing district to cover the multimillion-dollar cost and later learned a separate citizens group was investigating the pros and cons of Wesley Chapel incorporating as a municipal government. If it would help turn a vacant pasture into a soccer/baseball and football complex, Olsen was all for it. He even volunteered to a journalist that he would run for mayor.

Such self-aggrandizement was not in his nature. Olsen wasn't built for politics, he was built to be a catcher and a coach. I once watched him teach 7- and 8-year-old boys how to square up to bunt a baseball by pointing to his then bulky midsection and telling the youngsters he just held the bat level and turned his body so the pitcher could get a better look at his entire stomach. The kids laughed, but understood.

That, too, was Olsen. He was funny and gregarious and his face was seldom without a smile. He was a high-energy, dedicated role model, and we'd all be fortunate to have our offspring emulate him. Olsen wanted children to compete, but he wanted them to learn. He stressed teamwork, integrity and the importance of families. Mostly, he wanted the kids to play and to have fun.

Saturday evening, as players and parents mourned his passing, a baseball game on an adjoining field paused to join the moment of silence. Again, there was speculation Olsen would have been perturbed at the gesture and likely would have offered an alternative sentiment if given the chance:

Just let the kids play.

Death of Pasco kids' coach leaves void in community 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:30pm]
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