In Final Days, Coach Came Together With Team

Local softball legend Honeycutt attended Coats IGA reunion before his death

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Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson once said, “A great manager has a knack for making ballplayers think they are better than they are.”

Thirty years ago, there were a few guys in Coats who thought it would be fun to play softball.

Ronnie Stewart, Kent Turlington and Dan Ferrell were fortunate enough to be enrolled in an agriculture class, taught by the late Dan Honeycutt. Honeycutt asked the guys if they wanted to play in a league. They gathered up more players, landed Currin and Dorman as their sponsor and the Coats A’s was formed.

Before too long, the team had amassed its talent, players like Danny Stanley, Joe Ferrell, Doug Tanner, Wayne Royal, Robert Pleasant, Randall McNeill, Roscoe Williams, Frank Turlington, Ken Howard, Tony Howard, Sammy Pope, Sammy Wagner, James Johnson, Tug McGraw, Doug Stevens, Barry Doyle, Danny Ferguson, Randy Pope, Claude Abate and Keith Thomas.

For almost half of the 1980s, this group of guys dominated softball league and tournament play.

As team Coats IGA, the guys won 20 games in 1983. They lost only two games that year, in separate double-elimination tournaments. They went on to win both of those tournaments and the Harnett County championship in Coats on July 30, 1983.

“We won a lot of games in the last inning,” Ronnie Stewart said. “That was the most amazing stretch of sports I’ve ever been a part of.”

His brother-in-law, Robert Pleasant, agreed, saying, “I’ll never forget the semi-final and finals games. They were the best games I’ve ever played in, or seen, in my life.”

The 1983 Harnett County tournament final ended on Pleasant’s line drive over third base, scoring Joe Ferrell and Tony Howard. Coats IGA had 20 hits in the game, four of them were Pleasant’s.

Coats IGA teammates and their families reunited for the first time last month, at an old farmhouse outside Coats. They reminisced on some of the best plays, some of the questionable calls and talked about their winning ways.

During the reunion, the men gathered around a memorial; six gold softballs with the names of team members who have passed.

Coach and pitcher, Dan Honeycutt, led a short service in memory of former Coats IGA owner and team sponsor M.T. Strickland and late team members Mike Stanley, James Johnson, Keith Thomas, Claude Abate and Frank Turlington. Doris Strickland and Joan Stanley released gold balloons. The former teammates enjoyed their time together and promised not to wait so long to reconnect again.

As Honeycutt and his wife, Teresa, walked to their truck that night, he was heard saying, “We’ve got to do this again soon. You never know when it will be too late.”

Tragically — six days later — Coats IGA lost its coach and leader. Honeycutt died in an accident on the farm at his home.

Honeycutt, former Harnett County Schools superintendent and Triton High School principal, was 68. Honeycutt was also a former softball coach for Triton High School, winning 11 conference championships and making 12 state playoff appearances. He was inducted into the North Carolina Softball Hall of Fame in 2011.

In speaking with a few members of the Coats IGA team, Honeycutt’s importance to them became evident.

The family of Robert Pleasant put out a statement shortly after on behalf of the team, stating, “We love and miss you, Dan Honeycutt, and know that one day we will be together as a team forever.”

Pleasant said ample planning went into putting together last month’s reunion. He said the turnout was “excellent,” and he was grateful that it took place.

Much of the time spent at that old farmhouse outside Coats was spent “heaping praise onto Dan,” he said, referring to the reunion as a “living memorial” of sorts. “Dan Honeycutt did an amazing job,” Pleasant said of his former softball coach. “(He) was the one who was able to manage and keep everybody satisfied and happy.”

Pleasant recounted on the popularity of softball in the area during that era, calling it “huge.” The Coats IGA team played league softball games several nights a week, and then took part in tournaments on the weekends. Like Honeycutt, most of the collection of Coats IGA players grew up in or around Coats. The team was started by Honeycutt, who graduated from Coats Union High School in 1968, attended N.C. State and Campbell University, returning thereafter, to teach at his alma mater. While at Coats Union, Honeycutt was the winningest high school softball coach in the state.

Ronnie Stewart shared his recollection of how the legend of the Coats IGA softball team started. He remembered being in Honeycutt’s agriculture class, and being a part of a small group of pupils who he asked to play ball. He called Honeycutt “the nucleus of everything.”

He said the coach threw together the first group of players, and approached Coats construction company, Currin and Dorman, for sponsorship. The team was known as the Coats A’s until an IGA opened in town. Stewart believes that Honeycutt approached Coats IGA owner, M.T. Strickland, and asked to bear the business’ name on the team’s jerseys.

It is clear that Stewart feels that sponsorship was integral to the success of the team. The owner and operator of Stewart’s Tire Service said, “Winning was important to us but making our sponsor proud was more important.”

Strickland supplied the bats, the balls, the uniforms and support. “We knew we represented IGA,” Stewart said. “We knew that the way we behaved on the field would carry over and reflect on his business.”

Much of that mantra trickled down from the head coach, Honeycutt. On a team made up of fellow congregates, co-workers, family members, classmates and friends, there was no bickering nor animosity, no revelry nor debauchery.

Pleasant learned of the softball team through his work connections as a plant manager in Coats, and he joined the softball team while working for the N.C. Farm Insurance Bureau with Keith Thomas. He lauded the team chemistry and camaraderie and called Coats IGA an excellent team, with a family atmosphere. “We took our wives and children,” Pleasant said. “It was a family affair.”

On a team that had at least two pairs of brothers, everybody knew everybody, and everybody uplifted each other. “We just gelled,” Pleasant said. “We were proud of what we had put together.”

Said, Stewart, “We had a strong team concept and no matter if you had a bad game, the team was really good at picking you up. You never heard somebody getting down on somebody.”

While other teams were cursing each other after errors, or sitting on the tailgate in between games and drinking beers, Coats IGA respected each other, got along and worked to do what’s right. “There was not a lot of partying,” Stewart said, “Most of the guys were in church on Sunday, and were trying to do the right thing.”

Through coach Honeycutt’s guidance, Coats IGA softball team saw themselves as the public version of the hometown grocery store.

“When we were playing softball, we didn’t go out on the field and cut up,” Stewart said. “The team respected each other and cared about each other.”

He became emotional while reminiscing on a personal experience shared with his late pitcher, coach and friend, Dan Honeycutt.

As a pitcher, Honeycutt was known to intentionally walk powerful or streaking hitters. He was also regarded as inspirational and encouraging, and while Stewart was in a hitless drought, his coach told him just what he needed to hear.

“I normally batted second in the lineup,” Stewart said. “For a few games, everything I hit was right at somebody.”

After hitting into another routine ground out, he turned to Honeycutt and offered to move down in the order, or be benched.

“I told Dan, ‘I can’t get on base. Bat me last or sit me down.”

Stewart recalled Honeycutt to have said, “‘You are our second batter and that’s where you’ll stay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll get on base.’”

That snapped Stewart out of his slump almost instantly, saying, “He was the most encouraging person. He was an encourager.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson once said, “A great manager has a knack for making ballplayers think they are better than they are.”

The Coats IGA team were never worried about winning a game. Even when Honeycutt would walk the opposing team’s strongest hitter, with the bases loaded, to allow the tying or go ahead run.

“When we went into the seventh inning and we were down ... we had so much confidence, we never worried about coming back,” Pleasant said.

Although Coats IGA wasn’t full of guys who would smack the softball over the outfield fence, they worked together to win, as a team, and under the leadership of a man they revered and admired ... who none of them will ever forget.

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