Staff columnist

For dad and daughter, a game that two can coach

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Caley Mitchell stands next to third base, a white baseball cap shading her eyes, a single braid running down her back. Intensity radiates from her small frame as she leans her hands on her knees and looks toward the batter at home plate.

"OK, line drive, two-three, you can do it," she says. "Big zone, fight it off. Good job." She claps several times. "You can do it. Right here."

The batter strikes out.

New inning.

"All right, let's go, hustle," Caley tells her players as they run onto the field. "Hey, a lot of eyes ... you never know, you never know."

In another ballpark, on another day, Toby Tabola, sunglasses perched atop the baseball cap on his head, paces next to third base, stops to send his batter her signals, then leans his hands on his knees.

"Get it started, six. C'mon, you can do it," he says, his voice quiet, confident. "Don't give up here. You got it. Good job." He claps and nods encouragement. "C'mon, six, go get it."

The ball pops up.

New inning.

Toby steps into the dugout, but his words follow the players as they take the field. "A lot of eyes, ladies. Let's go!"

If you listen and watch closely, the similarities between the two softball coaches are apparent. What they say. Mannerisms. How they play the game. Not surprising when you learn they are father and daughter.

But what defines them is what you can't see - the story behind the game, one that tells of family and love, legacies instilled, life lessons well learned.

"Being part of something bigger than yourself, such as a team, teaches people to be humble and to put the greater good before yourself," Caley says. "Being involved in a team sport is one of the best things that ever happened to me. My dad taught me this from a very young age, and I try to instill that in my players - that belonging to a team, and experiencing the joys and challenges that come with it, is truly a blessing."

The story begins when Caley, now 29, was just 4.

Her grandparents sponsored a longtime men's fast-pitch team, Stenseth Agency. Toby, now 56, played on his own fast-pitch team. Caley always tagged along.

"She grew up around the ballparks watching tournaments and watching me play," Toby says. "She was kind of born into the culture."

Toby, a high school psychology and sociology teacher who retired in 2012 after 32 years, coached football in his early days. Friday night games meant Caley riding with the coaches, eating sunflower seeds, grabbing Cokes at the gas station.

"I have vivid memories of sitting and coloring and listening to the coaches strategizing," Caley says. "I was always part of a team situation. That's why I love this."

Around 6 years old, Caley picked up a bat for T-ball. Softball started the next year. She joined a competitive summer team at 11, and Toby began coaching her then.

"We had a very good father-daughter, coach-player relationship," Toby says.

Caley paid attention to fundamentals. She listened. She learned. She didn't get angry when her dad corrected her. "She was a joy to coach."

Caley laughs. She points out at her wedding, in his toast at the reception, Toby noted how "she was a very coachable kid."

In high school, Caley played second base and was good enough to earn all-league honors. A shoulder injury the summer before her senior year changed plans to play in college.

Instead, she focused on becoming a social studies teacher. But during the 2006-07 school year, while she was student teaching, she also found her way back to softball as an assistant coach - for her dad, in his first year as head coach at Ponderosa High School in Parker.

The next year, Castle View High School in Castle Rock hired Caley to teach. And after three years as assistant softball coach there, she became head coach.

The two schools are league rivals.

Caley: "The first time we played each other, my dad hugged me at the plate and ... gave me a white rose."

Then they exchanged lineups.

Toby: "It was a special moment. This is pretty cool to go up to home plate to compete against your daughter. I really didn't care about winning or losing - it was a cool moment."

The two admittedly mirror each other in many ways.

Caley: "I find myself saying things all the time that I think, 'I must say that 'cause you say that.' "

Toby: "Our philosophies are way similar."

Caley: "Yeah, because I got it from you."

Toby: "A lot of thought went into that philosophy."

Caley: "It's a great philosophy."

The philosophy is small ball or as Toby calls it, "smart ball." Or as Caley explains, bunting.

Toby: "She knows everything I'm going to do, pretty much. She knows when I'm going to bunt."

Caley: "'Cause it's always when I would bunt."

They both believe in the life lessons taught by the game.

Toby: "It builds character. You're forced to face challenges; you don't get everything you want when you want it. ... You can't be successful if you're selfish. It forces you to be bigger than yourselves."

Caley isn't surprised she's walking in her dad's footsteps.

"I knew I wanted to be a teacher and a coach from a very young age," Caley says. "I've had a really good role model. Even if other parts of his life were stressful, my dad would always say, 'I like my job.' He was always happy in what he was doing. ... He showed that he could have such a large sphere of influence and that choosing a career based on what you love is way more important than money or status."

Toby, for his part, couldn't be prouder of Caley. Facing her on the softball field - where their bond has been nurtured - is an unexpected bonus.

"It's been a blessing," he says, "a total blessing."

Caley and Toby haven't played each other yet this year. The matchup should be good - the teams boast two of the state's best pitchers.

Someday, Caley would like Toby to coach with her.

They look at each other: Wouldn't that be fun?

And wouldn't that just be a fitting end to the story behind this game.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.

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