The Wheaton softball team’s success during the 1990s actually began a decade earlier.

The Bulldogs were one of the top Class 1A-2A teams in Missouri during the 80s, reaching the state final four on four different occasions (1980, 1982, 1985, 1986). While those teams didn’t quite reach the goal of becoming state champions, they left quite a mark on future generations of Bulldogs.

“We had a legacy that went on for several years before us,” Mindy Ray Beeson said. “It started in the 80s and carried forward to the 90s.

“We looked up to the players who came before us. We took it seriously.”

Beeson’s generation of Bulldogs were so serious and so committed to winning that they bested their idols, reaching five straight state final fours from 1993-97, and winning Wheaton’s first and – so far – only state championship in any sport when they came out on top in 1996.

That sustained period of success and the determination to keep on winning is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is happy to induct the Wheaton High School Softball Era of 1993-97 at our annual Fall Sports Luncheon.

Veteran head coach Keith McGee was at the helm for all five Final Four trips and his guiding hand, influence and coaching acumen are cited by most players as a leading factor in Wheaton’s success.

McGee knew how to coach, how to get the best out his players and it showed in the results. His former players gush over his abilities as both a coach and a mentor. He guided the Bulldogs to a .786 winning percentage during the five years from 1993 to 1997, with the ’96 state championship squad posting a 17-1 record.

“I loved being coached by Coach McGee,” Tracy Keel Hudson said, “because he knew the game well. He knew our strengths and weaknesses and how to get the best out of us. He didn’t miss a beat and I don’t think we did either.”

Beeson shared similar sentiments.

“He was a good motivator,” she said. “He knew the game and he knew sports. That allowed us to build a strong relationship with him because he coached us in other sports as well.”

But McGee didn’t necessarily make all the right moves. Just ask Tracy Schad Witt.

“In a state tournament game, he was getting frustrated with me and asked me to step out of the box during an at-bat,” she said. “Coach told me to stop swinging for the fences so much. The wind was blowing in pretty good on that day and he didn’t think I could hit a home run. So, I stepped back in the box and on the next pitch I hit one out.”

Schad Witt, however, agrees with her former teammates about McGee’s ability to get the most out of his players.

“He was a great motivator,” she said. “He knew how to push the right buttons and get us to go beyond what we believed we were capable of doing.”

One of the traits which set the Bulldogs apart from their opponents was their competitiveness.

“Our competitiveness is what I loved the most,” Keel Hudson said. “We were driven to do the best we could. I loved that part of it. I tell my kids all the time how much winning meant to us. When we got out on the field we just played. It was so much fun to be competitive and to win.”

The ’96 final four began with Wheaton exploding for six runs early in their semi-final game against New Bloomfield before hanging on for a 6-4 victory, setting the stage for the championship game.

After years of coming close, the ’96 team finally broke through with a state championship, defeating South Nodaway 11-8 in the title game.

The ’96 team was an offensive juggernaut, averaging 12.8 runs per game in the state tournament, while allowing less than four runs. Total dominance.

The town celebrated with the team after the championship victory, greeting the Bulldogs on Main Street when they rolled into town early on a Sunday morning. Local news reports indicated later that week, at a school rally, State Rep. Sam Gaskill told those assembled that he now had an answer when he was asked where Barry County is. “It’s where Wheaton is, home of the world-famous Wheaton Lady Bulldogs.”

Today, once more, the state is being reminded of that.