Coming back from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, first-year Waynesburg University head softball coach Brett Shimek experienced a “nine-hour bus ride of emotional thoughts.”
The emotion had nothing to do with what happened on the team’s spring break trip, where the Yellow Jackets struggled to a 2-6 start. The reason Shimek carried a heavy heart on the way back was because he had just received some of the worst news imaginable.
The news wasn’t unexpected, but it still shook Shimek.
With Shimek surrounded by his new team, he decided to keep to himself for a while, not wanting his grief to rub off on his players.
When the squad arrived back on campus, he finally told the team, which he calls a “family,” what had happened.
His father, Stanley “Ron” Shimek had died at the age of 74 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
While Brett Shimek knew his father was in serious condition, his father— a baseball lifer who was a Greene County PONY League all-star before playing high school ball at Jefferson-Morgan, then collegiately at California University of Pennsylvania with a tour of duty in Vietnam in between—wanted nothing more than for Brett to be with his new team.
“My dad would have wanted me to go on the trip,” Shimek said. “We talked about it, and he absolutely wanted me to go. That’s the kind of person he was, just take care of others, you’ll be fine. You have to do your job.”
With the conference season now in full swing, Shimek’s players have rallied around their head coach.
#ShimekStrong has become the team’s battle cry.
T-shirts that bear that slogan have sold, $1,300 worth so far, which has gone to the Shimek family.
Every batting helmet the team wears this season has a purple ribbon to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer, with a black “6” in the middle to represent the number Ron Shimek wore throughout his playing career. In the Waynesburg dugout, there is a black stool with the Waynesburg Yellow Jacket logo and “assistant coach Ron Shimek” written in white text.
When the team breaks its huddles, the last thing it yells is “Shimek strong.”
Preparations to honor Ron Shimek began after he got his diagnosis, with the spring semester in its infancy. Junior outfielder Taylor Staley—who played left field for Brett Shimek when he was the head coach at Waynesburg Central High School and often chatted with Ron, who’s usual seat was behind the left field wall—got the idea to create and sell the “Shimek Strong” T-Shirts.
“We just wanted to do something to kind of lift him up before the season started,” she said. “That was a good thing because his dad was able to get a T-shirt too.”
Taylor’s younger sister, sophomore infielder Tara Staley, also played for Shimek at Waynesburg Central, and although she, like her sister, never had a close relationship with the elder Shimek, she understood both men’s values.
“He would always say that his dad was all about hustle and effort, and [those are] two of his key teaching points when he’s coaching,” Tara Staley said. “We have to work hard to prove ourselves to him.”
While Shimek demands the best from his players, Tara Staley said he has the utmost confidence in them.
“He believes in us more than any other coach that I’ve had,” she said.
Unlike the Staley’s, senior first baseman Alex Lawrence never knew Shimek before he took the job at Waynesburg. After starting for three years under former head coach Richele Hall, Lawrence has had to adjust to the change as a senior captain. While she and most of her teammates have known Shimek for months rather than years, she knew how important it was for her team to be there for its new coach.
“He always said to us that softball was kind of his “safety net” and kind of getaway,” Lawrence said. “He said that he wouldn’t rather be coaching any other team because of how supportive we are and how hardworking we are.”
Lawrence said that while Shimek is the leader of the Jackets as head coach, he, like his players, has days where his spirits are low, and just like they would for a teammate, Shimek’s players try to pick up their coach.
“Because that’s basically what coaches are, is teammates too,” she said. “He’s technically the leader of the team, and sometimes leaders get down too and they need help.”
While the Yellow Jackets haven’t gotten the results they want yet Shimek is confident that the wins will start to come. Regardless of the record or any of the numbers coaches and players must pay attention to throughout the season, Shimek feels he has the right group of players to begin his run at Waynesburg.
“I think we have a fantastic group of young ladies,” Shimek said. “They’re a special group, and I feel like it is a family. We talked about it early on, and I think this group is a family.”
Along with the softball program, the Shimek family has received support from the entire Waynesburg community. Because of that, Brett Shimek has taken extra pride in his hometown.
“I’ve received so many cards and text messages and email messages from the university,” he said. “I stress family at the softball level with the university, but quite honestly, the university has been a family to us,” he said. “For all the support, we’re grateful.”
Ron Shimek wasn’t somebody who could take shortcuts. According to his son, Ron weighed 88 pounds when playing baseball at Jefferson Morgan.
There were no shortcuts for when he was drafted into the Vietnam War after high school, where he doubled his weight in two years of service. Ron Shimek didn’t have any shortcuts in the general workforce, either. He was a coal miner for a living.
Brett Shimek’s team won’t have it easy, either. The Jackets were picked to finish eighth out of nine teams in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference preseason poll.
For Shimek, #ShimekStrong could be summed up by both how his father fought in his last days, and how he lived the previous 74 years.
“First and foremost, I think about how hard my dad fought in the last couple of months,” he said. “I also think about him just growing up… his hard work, long hours. He always wanted to be the first to practice, the last to leave, that kind of person. So, I think it hits me from both sides. It hits me from how he fought during the end, but also how he lives his life. He was just a proud, strong person.”
One of Shimek’s last conversations with his father connected baseball with the impending end of Ron’s life.
Lying in his hospital bed, Ron Shimek asked his son what “inning” it was, referring to how much time he had left.
The son replied that his father’s life was in its “seventh-inning stretch.”
Ron Shimek replied that he was trailing, 6-2.
Later, the father asked his son if the score had changed. Brett replied that the “game” was now in the bottom of the eighth. Ron had cut the deficit to 6-4, and he had six outs to give.
Less than three weeks later, he died.
“I like to think that he turned a double play to get out of the top of the 9th and hit a walk-off triple to clear the bases,” Shimek said.