NEW PORT RICHEY — River Ridge High coach Ernie Beck is retiring at the end of the school year, no secret to the current players on his successful softball team.
Or his former ones.
A mix of the present and the past gathered in rightfield after last week's region quarterfinal win to thank Beck and remind him of the great times.
Former stars such as Michelle McKonly, Stephanie Seaman, Jill Hrovoski and Deanna Kiesel were among the 20 or so who came out. Adrienne Cicirello, who had to stand on her tiptoes to take a cellphone photo of her name engraved on a plaque in the press box, squeezed in between her taller teammates for a hug.
Christine Beck, Ernie's daughter and former player of the year, snapped a few pictures, then joined in the fun.
Another River Ridge win. Another gathering in the outfield.
Just like old times.
"I'm so proud of what he's done," Christine Beck said. "I'm happy, in a way, like a celebration of all that. But it's sad, too, kind of like playing your last game. Sad, because softball is such a happy part of his life."
Ernie Beck, 66, has left his mark on Pasco County, taking a young River Ridge softball program and turning it into a local powerhouse.
While Pasco, Land O'Lakes and Ridgewood were once the teams to beat, and still occasionally manage great seasons, Beck's Royal Knights have defined dynasty for the county with remarkable consistency.
In 19 seasons, Beck has been the district champ or runnerup 16 times. His teams have won 20 or more games 12 times. He has coached in two state championship games and three final fours, and his career record, according to Tampa Bay Times archives, is 429 wins, 136 losses.
He has never had a losing season.
Beck isn't ready to go, but he knew when he signed up for the Deferred Retirement Option Program five years ago that this day would come.
"It's been a ride," said Beck, who at various times in his River Ridge tenure has also been an assistant football coach and girls golf coach. "(Senior) Morgan Tolle, it's her last year, too. And at the beginning of the year, every practice she goes, 'Coach, this is the last one of this and the last one of that.' "
The highlights have been many for Beck, though the ultimate one — a state championship — has eluded him.
In 2002, the Knights lost 1-0 to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas on a seventh-inning squeeze play.
In 2003, after graduating six seniors including Christine, it was a seventh-inning double that foiled his chances.
In 2004, River Ridge fell in the semifinals 3-2 in 15 innings to state power Naples.
"There's not any part of him that does not crave a championship," Christine Beck said, "no matter what he tells you. And I think he deserves one."
For now, Beck is settling for the memories, as former players call or show up at games to wish him well in retirement, including former standouts and all-county performers such as Kiki Von Holt, Stephanie Simon and Tiffany Martin. Team pictures of almost all of Beck's teams hang on the wood-paneled walls of the press box, among plaques signifying the team's record holders for hitting and pitching.
"It will be weird coming back here when he's not coaching," Christine Beck said.
She cleared her schedule when the playoffs began so she wouldn't miss a game — the last game — and will often hang out in the press box with her mother, Karen, who even after 33 years of marriage still nervously paces during games.
Ernie Beck isn't ready to imagine life without softball practices and games, slapping ground balls to his infielders and making out lineups.
He could coach again, he says, in offseason travel ball or at a private school, like longtime Land O'Lakes coach Jerry English does at Academy at the Lakes.
Or he could fish, or golf, or tool around the house.
But the first thing he will do?
"Relax," Beck said. "Every softball season, trust me, it's exhausting and when it's over, you just exhale."
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]