Dean Dease Retires as Orange Baseball Coach

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Updated: June 13, 2018

When then-Orange Principal Dr. Stephen Halkiotis hired Dean Dease in 1984 as football and baseball assistant coach, his final words to his new employee was “Don’t screw it up, boy.”

Well, Dr. H, he didn’t.

On Monday afternoon, Dease gathered his returning players for 2019 in centerfield at the field he created, slaved over, mowed, fertilized, cleaned up and won championships on and told them he was retiring after 31 years as a varsity coach.

When most high school coaches depart (its already happened at three Big 8 schools in the past month), they leave behind a team.

Coach Dease is leaving a program. One that he created.

As word spread of Dease’s announcement on Monday night, generations of players who played under Dease expressed surprise and remorse that an era was ending.

For comparison’s sake, in 2018, Orange has a program. In 1984, they barely had a field. During Dease’s years as an assistant under previous head coach Gary Maske, they played some games at the Cedar Ridge Ruritan Club while the regular field was undergoing renovations. Even after those repairs were completed, the light poles were still inside the stadium. At times, that lead to an obstacle course for outfielders chasing fly balls.

While field quality improved over time, Dease saw it all and saw them all on the road in his early years. Before a game against Hillside in the mid-90s, he got off the bus with his team with his mouth agape as he stepped onto the grass consisting largely of weeds and dirt. He ordered his players to line up in the outfield before starting drills.

“Coach, are you making us run extra laps?,” asked one player.

”No,” answered Dease. “We’re going to pick up rocks.”

After replacing Maske in 1988 as varsity coach, Dease won 504 games and captured 12 conference championships. His last win came against Jacksonville on May 9th in the opening round of the 3A state playoffs. It was the seventh consecutive year that the Panthers have won a playoff game. Only Southeast Guilford has a longer streak in 3A baseball.

If only that could statisfy everyone.

Often in college sports, whether its Urban Meyer or Billy Donovan, coaches begin to look elsewhere when winning becomes so common, it starts to feel like a relief instead of a thrill. Sometimes, Dease didn’t even get that luxury.

When Orange defeated Chapel Hill on April 20th, it led to the Panthers’ 16th straight consecutive playoff birth. He was barely done with his team’s postgame huddle when he found a parent waiting for him along the first base line, waiting to read the coach the riot act for not playing his son.

Dease estimates that was the fifth time it had happened this year. It’s something he’s dealt with, to various degrees, since he took the job. At one point, there were over 900 players in the Hillsborough Youth Athletic Association. At one point in time, the vast majority of them aimed to play at Orange. Some of them stood out and raised their parents hopes of grandeur that they do something beyond Hillsborough. Often, Dease had to break it to grown-ups their little Jimmy or Johnny wasn’t the 2nd coming of Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman or Bryce Harper. Some parents understood.

Others waited for Coach Dease after the game and deliver barbs that stung. Even after all the wins and all the years, some parents forgot that the man behind the uniform and the cap was human.

In April, I spoke with Coach Dease for an hour on an Sunday afternoon for my first article as Sports Editor for the News of Orange. When I broached the subject of retirement, he didn’t seem to give it very much thought. He said it barely entered his mind and called coaching his “obsession.” If he was ready to leave, he didn’t show it that day.

Obviously, something happened between then and now. On Monday night, he revealed he met with Orange Principal Eric Yarbrough and Athletic Director Mike McCauley about possibly retiring the week after Orange’s season ended against Chapel Hill on May 12th. He had retired as a teacher in 2017. This spring, he spent his mornings working at Occoneechee County Club under the direction of Scott Ray, one of his former players.

Yarbrough asked Dease to take a weekend to think about it. So he drove to the Greenville Regional of the NCAA Baseball Tournament, where UNC Wilmington was playing. Dease’s daughter, M’Lynn, is an administrative assistant for the Seahawks. She does everything from filing statistical sheets to holding the radar gun.

While Dease has been to many college baseball games, it was the first time he had ever interrupted his routine long enough to sit down and enjoy a regional college tournament. He found that he loved it.

Then he thought about his family. His youngest daughter, Abby, just finished her freshman year at Orange. He thought back to previous summers, which he barely had time to vacation. A baseball coach’s life is dictated by routine, and part of Dease’s routine was getting ready for summer baseball every June. He could take a vacation, but for only about a week. Then summer ball would start and it wouldn’t end until it was almost time to start another academic year.

Increasingly over the last month, Dease began to think about what a life away from that routine he had lived for 31 years would be like.

Now, he’s ready to try it. He joked that his wife of 26 years, Jan, thought he was crazy for staying with coaching for as long as he has.

1,000 words isn’t enough to summarize Dease’s career and what he’s meant for Orange Baseball and the Hillsborough community at large. It doesn’t touch on the 57 players who have gone on to play college or professionally. Or the endless stories about the thrilling moments in games, like one contest in the 2nd round of the 1992 4A state playoffs against Anson County, where 2nd baseman Craig Swainey tied the game with a 2-run homer in the 7th inning, a game that Orange would go on to win. It’s still a moment that rolls right off of Dease’s tongue.

So over the next few days, we’ll bring you memories of players and coaches from Dease’s past and how much he meant to the community and their lives.

In the interest of full disclosure, I graduated from Orange in 1991 (There. The secret is out. I’m old. But I’m old going to as many concerts as possible). High school was a struggle for me. I spent a fair amount of it not really caring about my grades because I didn’t feel I had much to offer to the world.

For reasons I still can’t remember, I joined Cathy Bennington’s Newspaper class in 1989, a year of tremendous inner turbulence. That February, Mrs. Bennington (I still call my teachers that) asked me to start doing public address announcing for Orange’s JV baseball team.

Me? I sounded more southern than a UNC football fan that didn’t attend UNC. I barely spoke in class. Not just Newspaper class, ANY class. Somehow, I took the job. No pay, of course.

Orange won the first game 11-1 over Graham, which included Orange pitcher Jonathan Hoffman throwing to catcher Scott Hackler throwing to first baseman Jamey Hall for a 1-2-3 double play. Midway through the game, Coach Dease walked into the press box. We had never spoken before and he wondered why the JV team had a public address announcer while the varsity team didn’t. He asked me to do varsity, too.

Extremely slowly and somewhat surely, that was how I made my living with words, whether they came out through a microphone or over a keyboard like I’m typing on now.

So it isn’t enough for me to simply thank Coach Dease for his cooperation with this article. I have to thank him for his cooperation with my life.

 

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