(Cover photo L to R: Mercy Academy head softball coach Greg Meiners, athletic director Mark Evans, and head girls’ basketball coach Keith Baisch. Credit: Bill Brymer)
By Ashli McLean
It’s no secret that Mercy Academy dominates the Sixth Region in many of its sports. Athletic Director Mark Evans credited former Mercy head basketball coach Charlie Just, who now coaches at Spalding, for changing the athletic culture during his tenure at Mercy. Years later, Mercy’s softball and basketball teams have made a name for themselves.
In 2015, both teams won the regional title and established a presence in the state tournament.
Although No. 7 Mercy basketball fell 59-78 to Seventh Region champion and No. 8-ranked Male in the first round of the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls Sweet Sixteen State Tournament, it was still an accomplishment to reach that point. Recently-graduated senior Hanah Bewley led the team in that game with 14 points, seven rebounds, four steals, and three assists. Rising senior Jessica Laemmle also contributed 12 points, five rebounds, and three steals.
At the start of the double-elimination state softball tournament, No. 10 Mercy bounced back from a 0-1 loss to No. 3 Scott County by beating No. 2 Madisonville-North Hopkins 3-0, Johnson Central 7-1, and No. 19 East Jessamine 5-3. Once again, however, the Seventh Region champion and No. 4-ranked Male would give Mercy a run for its money, defeating the Jaguars 2-0. This was Mercy’s fourth consecutive trip to the state tournament, a huge feat for its seniors. Jordan Vorbrink finished the regular season with 32 runs and 29 RBIs. Pitcher Leigh Ellen Thomas threw 207 strikeouts.
The Louisville Women’s Sports Network sat down with the Mercy Academy athletic director and head coaches to get their perspectives on what it takes to advance its teams to the highest levels of competition in the state of Kentucky. Here is the first of the two-part interview…
On Mercy’s Female Teams Competing at the Highest Levels of Athletic Success
Athletic Director Mark Evans:
“Well, I think it’s a culture. It’s an expectation, and it goes way back to people before me here.” Evans, softhearted yet direct, made it a point to emphasize the legacy of Mercy and how many people- coaches, administrators, former families and students- gave of themselves to build Mercy into what it is today.
Hiring quality coaches also gets the job done for Mercy. “You have to have coaches who are willing to sacrifice, coaches who care a lot about the kids,” he said. “You need to give them ownership and make them part of your family. And we are family. People say that, but not everybody really is that.”
The other secret to Mercy’s success according to Evans: the kids. “We tend to attract kids who still understand that hard work can create good things. In today’s world…we see a lot of entitlement. A lot of kids are promised things and told ‘This will happen if you come here.’…That’s not how it is here. We basically say, ‘There are no guarantees. Whatever you role is, you earned it. It needs to be a privilege to be a part of it. It’s not a right.’ And we have parents who buy into that.”
Finally, expectation is key for Evans as athletic director. He doesn’t make excuses for his programs not being able to compete with the best in the state. “We just expect a lot. The bar is always high. If you want mediocrity, then drop that bar and find out what you get.”
On Winning the Regional and Having Success in the State Tournaments
Head girls’ basketball coach Keith Baisch:
“We had a lot of experience.” For Baisch, his senior leadership was instrumental in advancing Mercy as far as they went. “We had a good group of seniors who came through… With a few injuries, we had a couple of seniors step up, and that made a huge difference for our team.”
The other ‘it’ factor was the support his players had for one another. “That’s the biggest thing, the support and the family, how the kids pulled for each other.”
Even considering making it to the state tournmant, the grand prize keeps the Jaguars hungry. “We fell a little short of our ultimate goal,” said Baisch. “We definitely wanted to win it all, and that is our number one goal every season. But the support from our administration, from Mark (Evans), Mike (Mercy President Michael Johnson), and Amy (Mercy Principal Amy Elstone), you can’t ask for anything better.”
Head softball coach Greg Meiners:
“From my perspective,” said Meiners, “it’s about kids and leadership too.” Meiners also boasted on his three seniors, who took charge of the Jaguars team when they experienced coaching changes abruptly mid-April. Head coach Jon Pont transitioned out, and Meiners, who was an assistant, saw his role change immediately. Meiners depended on his Leigh Ellen Thomas, Jordan Vorbrink, and Sam Dykes to stand up and encourage the team to continue moving forward. The goal was to maintain a tightness in the group throughout it all. “We didn’t have many in numbers, but we had great senior leadership,” he said.
“It starts with making sure the kids know you care about them and they can count on you. You have to be willing to do anything you can to ask them to do something. I was really proud of the girls from where they were to where they ended up, and I tell you, it starts and ends with those three seniors for me.”
On Family and Prior Experience
Evans got his start by teaching and coaching in Catholic grade schools. His plan to attend Florida State University to become a marine biologist changed when a nun convinced him to stay in Louisville and begin teaching at St. Edward. Eventually, Evans got involved as an assistant coach for his sister’s travel softball team. The team had several players who also attended Mercy. When Mercy was in need of a softball coach, the girls rallied to athletic director Leslie Scully for Evans to get the job. And he did.
Fast forward to today, Evans has held numerous roles at Mercy from softball coach to basketball coach to athletic director. Even with leaving to spend five years as Oldham County’s basketball coach, Evans calls this place home. His daughter graduated from Mercy. His father was instrumental in building the new Mercy off Fegenbush Lane in 2007 (Evans Construction Company, Inc. was the general contractor for the project).
For Baisch, it began with his mother and aunt attending Mercy in the 1960s. Later, both of his sisters attended the school, as well as some cousins. Ironically, Baisch got his start in Mercy athletics by simply picking up the phone one day and calling Evans, who was already coaching at the school. He asked Evans if there were any openings, and soon found himself transition from volunteering in the office to coming on board full-time.
That was 17 years ago.
As for his continuous family ties to the school, he said, “Hopefully my two little nieces will be here shortly. I’ve got one who is going to be in eighth grade, and I know she’s planning to be a future Jaguar.”
Probably the oddball of the bunch, Meiners is a CPA by background. He started assistant coaching at Mercy in the fall of 2013 when Evans was serving as the softball coach at the time.
“I tell you, the reason I was so passionate about wanting to be part of this, [although] I never really envisioned myself coaching here, is because I see the genuine love for the girls here…I love Mercy for what it did for my kids.” Both of Meiners daughters graduated from the academy.
Meiners came from a very large Catholic family; his parents had 14 children. His mother was the only female in his immediate family to attend Mercy. A few days before she passed, Meiners went to visit her at the nursing home. He shared with her that his oldest daughter Chelsea, who was in the eighth grade at the time, was at the old Mercy on Broadway taking her entrance exam to get into the academy. A bit emotional when he shared the story, Meiners said he told his mother, “Chelsea is going to go to Mercy.” His mother held on to his hand, smiled and nodded. “It was, really, one of the last conversations I had with my mother,” he said. Meiners’ mother had given Chelsea a diary from her days at the school filled with pictures and memories. “My mom was just proud of it because none of her kids went [to Mercy],” he said.
Way before Mercy, Meiners started coaching when Chelsea was playing tee ball with Fern Creek Optimist. “My wife loved dance and I loved sports, other sports, let’s just say,” he laughed. “We would have these discussions and I was like, ‘Dance is promoting everything I’m trying to delay.”
Also part of his reason for coaching the team was so he could schedule the practices on a different night than his daughter’s dance practice. Evans interjected, “I thought you would schedule them on the same night as dance?” Meiners joked, “Well, I wasn’t going to win. Dance costs so much.” Meiners even picked up a few dancers on his team. “I saw a kid do a solo and dance sliding across the floor,” he said. “She was my shortstop one year at Fern Creek. I said, ‘I’ve never seen you go get a ball in the hole like you went sliding across that floor!”
Meiners coached travel softball for about 10 years and then started to find himself weaving into Mercy athletics. “I would watch the interaction, Mark with the girls, one on one when they would come off the floor, and Keith with instruction. And I paid attention to that stuff…I was always going to be a fan of this place.”
Stay tuned for Part Two of “Mercy on the Move”…