Staff Photo: John Bohn Head Coach Randy Black of the North Gwinnett High School softball team. Black's softball coaching experience goes back to the mid 1990s when high school softball was primarily a slow-pitch game.
SUWANEE -- Over the past 21 years, the North Gwinnett High School softball program has undergone plenty of changes.
But throughout those years, two things have remained constant.
One is winning. The other is Randy Black.
Yes, the Gwinnett native has taken some breaks away from the program.
Still, there isn't much about the Bulldogs' program, especially the many victories, multiple region championships and postseason appearances, that doesn't have Black's stamp on it.
That may seem surprising to some, especially Black, himself, who admits he never saw himself coaching in any sport, let alone in one program at one school, this long.
"When I first got into teaching and coaching, I wanted to get into administration," Black said. "My background is in business, and I grew up with (current Brookwood athletics director) Mark Kimbro, and we kind of had similar goals, but I'm still sitting here coaching. ... And I'm really enjoying it."
That enjoyment remains despite all the changes that such a long tenure naturally brings.
Perhaps the biggest change came early on with the transition from slowpitch to fastpitch in 1994, which was right up Black's alley given his background in baseball, which he played in high school at Greater Atlanta Christian and in college at Middle Georgia College and Mercer University.
"I had a couple of cousins who played fastpitch in Lilburn for the Thunderbirds program at that time," Black recalled. "I saw some of their games and said to myself, 'Man, this is a little like baseball,' and I liked that.
"Then over the next few years, Berkmar, Meadowcreek and some of the DeKalb schools went fastpitch, and the next thing I knew, we were clearing trees to make room to build a field."
But as much of a labor of love the Bulldogs' program was for Black, those duties, along with those as an assistant coach with North's baseball and basketball programs, combined with his ever-expanding family, forced him to make a tough choice to step away from the program in 2000.
"I was coaching three sports at the time," Black recalled. "And we'd just had our third daughter, and we've since had a fourth. ... I just thought it was time to do something else for a while.
But in 2005, he was coaxed back into coaching softball as an assistant to then-head coach Mike Cavey before becoming head coach once again in 2008.
He admits that the game, as well as the players, is considerably different now than when he first started coaching, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"In slowpitch, you didn't really have a short game, and you definitely didn't bunt," Black said with a laugh. "In fastpitch, it used to be that if you had one really good pitcher, you could dominate. I think (in recent years), the hitters have started catching up to the pitchers because of year-round training.
"The kids have definitely changed. Fastpitch has given a lot of young ladies hope or opportunities for (college) scholarships. And there's a lot of money spent on travel ball and training."
But while the game and the players have changed, Black has tried to keep his coaching style constant, something at least one of his players thinks he's done a pretty good job with.
Senior pitcher/utility player Alaina Hall already had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Black having watched her older sister, Kristin, play for the Bulldogs before she entered the program herself four years ago.
She says it's easy to draw inspiration from someone who has put the investment Black has into the program.
"It's interesting because he's watched all of us grow," Hall said. "I played (travel and high school ball) with his daughter. So, he's watched us since I was in sixth grade. Watching my sister (play for Black), I've seen the people he can get us to be and get us where we want to be."
One thing that has changed for Black the last few years was the presence of his oldest daughter, Katie, now a senior with the Bulldogs.
And with second daughter Kallie entering the program this year as freshmen, with the possibility of his two youngest daughters -- Kassie, 10, and Kamie, 7 -- one day playing for him, he admits the balancing act of being a coach and a father could get tricky.
But he also adds his coaching staff, and one assistant in particular, should help him with that balancing act.
"It hasn't been a problem," Black said. "(Veteran softball and baseball coach) Wayne Pierce is pretty experienced, and he keeps me in check with that."
Amid all the changes Black has seen throughout his years at North, there's one recent trend he's like to see end beginning in the coming weeks and months.
As many games as the Bulldogs have won in his tenure -- he needs just seven more wins to reach 200 for his career since the transition to fastpitch -- they have had trouble in the postseason in recent years.
And he is hoping the Bulldogs will have enough left after another grueling season in always tough Region 7-AAAAAA to make another serious run at the state tournament in Columbus.
"We were third (in the state) in 1996," Black said. "Since then, we've been to Columbus twice, but we haven't been since 2005.
"It's been very frustrating, but a lot of things have to fall into place. For instance, last year, we had a (tough) draw in the (sectional playoffs) -- really, we have the last three years. So, we're hoping (a return to Columbus) happens this year."