Sunday, May 22, 2022

Lady Jags tradition of success is homegrown

The Flower Mound High School softball team’s assistant coaches consist of former FMHS student athletes and booster club members. Pictured (from left to right): Emilee Burkhardt, Ali Baird, Mallory Singleton, Krista Burkhardt and Head Coach Mark Larriba. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

With four playoff berths in the last six seasons, the Flower Mound softball team has become synonymous with success.

The Lady Jaguars have appeared in nine playoff games or series in that same time span, won three District Championships in the last seven years, plus reached the regional quarterfinals and regional semifinals in two of the seasons along the way.

Flower Mound has also sent 26 athletes on to compete at the college level since 2014; and, the program shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

So, what is it that makes the Lady Jags compete at such a high level year after year?

Head Coach Mark Larriba said a big part of it is his homegrown coaching staff and a family-type of environment among his assistants and players.

“Everyone on our staff has their roots in FMHS,” Larriba said. “It happened by chance. Really, it’s attributed to the awesome FMHS family atmosphere we have at the school. Most people love coming back and being part of this type of culture. Also, of course, Coach Baird is the centerpiece and she’s like a magnet. People like being around her.”

Ali Baird graduated from Flower Mound in 2008 and played for Larriba and former Coach Wendy Massey. She continued to play beyond high school at Northeast Texas Community College.

Baird joined the Jaguars coaching staff in 2013. She said she realized shortly thereafter she had made the right decision.

“When I first came into the program as a coach, I was a little jealous,” Baird said. “My junior and senior year were the turning points, if you will, of the program. Coach Massey decided to step away from softball, after my senior season, to be with her family, so the program was fortunate to get Coach Larriba to step into the head coaching role.

“My sister entered the program right after I graduated, so I came back to watch her play as much as I could. I remember being envious of the level of softball the girls were getting for four years. Coach Larriba has been a mentor of mine since my junior year of high school, so I came into the program expecting the girls to feel the same way about the program as the team from the 2008 season did.”

Baird said that was not actually the case.

“I was humbled as a coach, because I quickly learned that teenagers don’t give you respect because of your title; it’s earned.” Baird said. “I also learned a lot about teenagers and team dynamics in a totally different way. I had to learn how to create a family atmosphere, without being able to be a leader on the field or in workouts like I was used to. My belief has stayed the same– that we are one of the best programs in the state because of how girls transform in our program.

“I left the program a better version of myself, compared to when I entered it. I know that when we get girls who buy-in and trust the process– no matter how messy– they leave ready to take on the world from a different perspective.”

Assistant Coach Mallory Singleton graduated from Flower Mound in 2010 where she played basketball for Coach Sherika Nelson for three seasons, but did not play softball.

She was a first team All-District selection in both her junior and senior seasons and is fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,124 points) in girls basketball. Singleton has been an assistant softball coach at her Alma Mater for the last four years.

“The traditions of the softball team run deep and the players form a bond that is so strong that this program is like family,” Singleton said. “This year’s team even called themselves ‘softball sistas.’ But I wouldn’t necessarily say the things our program does draws our alumni back, because they never really leave.

“Yes, they may graduate and go off to college, but they never stop being a Lady Jaguar. Once a Jag, always a Jag. And, I think that is something that the softball program truly embodies and it’s what makes being a part of it so special– both in high school and the years beyond.”

Like Baird, her mother, Krista Burkhardt, has experienced the Flower Mound softball program from more than one perspective. She served as Vice President, Secretary and Spirit Wear Coordinator of the booster club; and, then as a volunteer assistant coach for the last seven years.

Burkhardt has been involved with the program for a total of 14 years and has had two daughters, Ali and Emilee, come through the Lady Jaguars softball organization.

“Getting to coach with this program has meant more to me than I can even say,” she said. “It started with me just being there for a coach that was pregnant at the time. The JV and Varsity didn’t travel together, so I was just there to help. Then, the next year, Coach Larriba let me stay. I learn new aspects of the game every year and from every coach that has been in the program.

“Coach Larriba has been so awesome to let me learn from him every year about life and softball. The mental training the girls do is just as beneficial to me. The team keeps me young, too. I learn so much from them about teenage life. They are so fun to be around.”

Burkhardt’s younger daughter, Emilee, is in her first season as a volunteer assistant coach with the Flower Mound softball team and could not be happier.

Emilee, or Milly– as she is known to her players and the coaching staff– had an exemplary career for the Lady Jags, earning District Newcomer of the Year and FMHS Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011. She was a first team All-District selection and FMHS Offensive Player of the Year in 2012.

She played college ball at the University of Texas at Tyler, where her team won a National Championship her senior year. She said that “Jaguar Nation” holds a special place in her heart.

“Not very many people can say they get to coach with their mom and sister at the same school, but we all three have a really strong bond and we joke around with each other, so that helps lighten up tense situations sometimes,” Emilee said.

“It was really easy for me to make the decision to come back to FMHS to help coach. I played for Coach Larriba, while I was a student here, and I learned so much from him as a player, so I was eager to come back and learn more from him on the other side of the game as a coach.”

Larriba, who grew up with three older sisters and is married with two daughters, said while he did not consciously set out to build an entirely female assistant coaching staff, things have worked out well in that respect.

“Having a female assistant is vital in coaching girls, because men are wired differently than women; and, we don’t understand some things,” Larriba said. “The great Mike Candrea [head softball coach at the University of Arizona and of the U.S. National team at the 2004 Olympic games] said something very profound early in my coaching career—’guys play for show, but girls have to feel good to play good.’ We have had male coaches before in our program, but, currently, we just want the best coaches possible.”

Larriba said the fact that his assistants are all homegrown simply reflects the devotion that coaches and players alike feel toward the Flower Mound softball program.

“From a player’s perspective, there are pros and cons for having a coaching staff with a strong FMHS pedigree,” Larriba said. “Our current players can’t try to pull the wool over our eyes, because our coaches usually comeback with ‘nice try, but I was in your same shoes.’ On the other hand, most of our players love having coaches that have been in the program. It creates a family tradition that everyone roots for.

“It’s like knowing you had older sisters and cousins that were successful and laid the foundation for the next generation to excel in. They get how hard the older kids worked to get the program to where it is. The history of our program is kept alive with these young coaches and our current players appreciate and become knowledgeable about our softball family.”

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