PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast swiftly brought back a Hall of Famer to take charge of its fourth-ranked softball program.
Kenneth Long, who was inducted into the MGCCC Athletics Hall of Fame in the 2020 class, will be interim head coach of the program he left for retirement after the 2019 season. He will be joined on the coaching staff by interim assistant coach Katelyn Gruich, a St. Martin High School standout who has completed a Division I playing career at South Alabama.
Gulf Coast is also bringing in former Southern Miss pitcher Shelbee Sowders as interim pitching coach.
The appointments were rapidly put in place by the Gulf Coast leadership team of Dr. Mary Graham, MGCCC President; Dr. Ladd Taylor, Perkinston Campus Vice President; and Steven Campbell, Athletic Director.
One of Long's first acts was to reschedule a game with LSU Eunice for Wednesday.
"It felt good talking with Dr. Taylor and Steven," Long said. "We're going to hit the ground running because we play on Wednesday. I think the players will be excited to play.
Long coached at Gulf Coast for 18 seasons. He's been in charge for all but two seasons of Bulldogs fast-pitch softball history. He has a 584-232 record, an eye-popping .716 winning percentage. His teams have won four MACJC and four NJCAA Region 23 titles. The Lady Bulldogs also won six MACJC South Division championships.
Long won MACJC and Region 23 Coach of the Year three times, and he won the Mississippi Association of Coaches Community College Softball Coach of the Year in 2015. Four Lady Bulldogs teams advanced to the national championship tournament, with the 2007 team finishing third.
More than 40 players went on to continue their softball careers at four-year schools, and eight Lady Bulldogs were named All-Americans under his command.
Long took over the Gulf Coast program in 2002 after coaching East Central High School to the MHSAA Class 4A state championship in 2001. He coached in Hurley from 1997-2001.
He graduated from Gulf Coast in 1994, then earned a bachelor's degree in history from The University of Southern Mississippi. He completed a master's in sports administration from USM in 2002.
Gruich joins Long's staff after a standout career at South Alabama. She thanked God for getting her in this position, and called being picked by the Gulf Coast leadership team to be an interim assistant coach a "dream come true."
"I'm ready for this opportunity to coach and represent Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College by sharing my gift with these players and being a leader they can depend on," she said. "They deserve to play the game they love and deserve to be supported. Our journey begins today, and I'm ready to get on the field with these young ladies."
Gruich was a fifth-year senior at South Alabama who started 130 games in her first four years in Mobile. She decided to hang up her spikes and start her coaching career after fighting injuries this spring.
In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, she led the Jaguars in home runs (4) and extra-base hits (9) and was second in runs (13) and RBI (11). She was sixth in the Sun Belt Conference in walks and eighth in home runs.
Her nine home runs in 2019 tied her for sixth in the school record book and was an Easton/NFCA All-America Scholar-Athlete on the Sun Belt Conference Commissioner's List in 2018. She earned spots on the Sun Belt Academic Honor Rollin 2017, 2019 and 2020. Gruich was co-recipient of the South Alabama softball team's Extra Mile Award last year.
Gruich, who has been a private coach and hitting instructor on the Coast since 2016, graduated from USA in 2020 with a bachelor's degree in sports management and has started work on her master's.
She was a Sun Herald Player of the Year at St. Martin when she batted .583 with seven home runs and 29 RBI as a senior. She finished her high school career with a .442 average, with 37 doubles, five triples, 21 home runs and 123 RBI. She struck out just five times in 198 plate appearances her last two years.
Sowders has a long history with Coach Long, and now she'll serve alongside him as interim assistant coach.
"I'm very excited to be back in the softball world and excited to be under the leadership of Coach Long," she said. "He's been a really close friend and an important part of my softball career growing up and throughout my collegiate career. It's good to be working with him and hopefully doing exciting things with him this season."
Sowders was an assistant at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Ga., the last two years. OCHS advanced to the semifinals in her first season and quarterfinals the second. She was named 2020 Georgia Softball Region Assistant Coach of the Year.
Sowders spent a year as a graduate assistant at both McNeese State and Georgia Tech. At Georgia Tech, she worked with pitchers and outfielders and handled all travel arrangements. She was the softball camp coordinator at McNeese State.
She started her collegiate playing career at the Louisiana, where she threw a perfect game in her debut and went 10-2 in two seasons in Lafayette. She helped the Ragin' Cajuns to two trips to the NCAA Tournament and one Super Regional berth. She transferred to Southern Miss for her final two years, winning 15 games with six shutouts in 2014. She was USM Female Athlete of the Year and Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2015-16.
She earned places on the Conference USA Commissioner's Academic Honor Roll three times and the Sun Belt Commissioner's List twice. Sowders graduated with a bachelor's in communications. She finished her master's in sports management in 2017.
The new coaching staff will lead the Bulldogs through practice this week ahead of the start of MACCC play. Gulf Coast will play at LSU Eunice on Wednesday, and the Bulldogs open conference play when Northeast Mississippi visits Ross-Smith Field on Saturday, Feb. 27.
For more information on MGCCC's 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.
By: Don Hammack
Sports Information Director
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College