Mark Watt loves the summer. It's the season before the season.
Lincoln Southwest's only head softball coach since the school opened in 2002 can be found during these mornings helping kids, checking in on conditioning in the weight room, running a camp.
He spent the past two summers working with McKenzie Steiner on her pitching mechanics, helping her develop into a Super-State-caliber player.
"To me, working with kids in the summer is some of the most fun parts of coaching," Watt said. "You get a chance to break things down, the actual teaching part of softball. You're helping a kid to develop their skills, and every kid that gets a little bit better makes the whole program better and each team within the program better.
"They buy into it."
The Silver Hawks also bought into Watt's words following a deflating walk-off loss to Millard West in the opening round of the Class A state softball tournament last fall. Their backs were against a wall.
What followed was an unprecedented run in Hastings. The Silver Hawks became the first Class A team to win a state championship after losing in the opening round of the double-elimination tournament. The run was capped by two wins against previously unbeaten and No. 1 Papillion-La Vista in the final.
After leading Southwest to its third state softball championship, Watt is the 2019 Journal Star girls coach of the year.
"The story of that team was improvement throughout the season," Watt said. "We continued to get better."
When it comes to setting expectation, Watt and the Silver Hawks are not afraid to swing for the fences.
For example, Southwest had to replace eight seniors from 2017, including seven who are now playing softball in college. Several first-year starters had to step in, yet Watt thought he had a team talented enough to make another big run.
After working out some early kinks, the team rolled into state, riding a 17-game win streak, a stretch that included a whopping 214 runs scored.
The Silver Hawks hit a snag in Hastings, though, losing to Millard West. The team bused back to Lincoln after the game, and Watt sensed he needed to say something before the players got off at the school.
"I could have let it go and show up at the field the next day, but I didn't feel like that was the right thing to do," he said. "I felt like I had to set the stage for them and create expectations.
"Throughout my coaching career I've always felt like you have to set high expectations for kids, and this time it was handling the disappointment in the right way."
Wins against Lincoln North Star, Gretna, Millard West and Millard South put the Silver Hawks into the championship round. Defending state champion Papio, riding a 49-game winning streak, was waiting. Ignited by an Abbie Squier grand slam, Southwest won 7-5 to force a decisive game. The momentum carried over and Southwest won the second game 9-5 to cap a 39-5 season. Three players — Steiner, Squier and Emma Kauf — were named first-team Super-Staters and Kauf was Super-State honorary captain.
For Watt, it was another reminder why he got into coaching.
"I love everybody working together for the same purpose," he said. "I love working with kids, helping them to get better, helping them to accomplish their goals and the team aspect of everybody, the coaching staff and kids working together to get all of that accomplished."
Watt's love of sports got him into teaching. He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to college at Michigan. His first coaching gig was as an assistant high school wrestling coach.
His first full-time job came at Deerfield, a small rural Michigan school, where he coached track and field. The school's track was a narrow dirt path.
Watt's teaching journey took a unique turn overseas. He taught in Athens, Greece, for three years and Saudi Arabia for two more years. Watt met his future wife, Ann (a Nebraska native), in Athens and they made their way to Lincoln.
Softball came into the picture at Lincoln Northeast, where Watt served as the reserve team coach. Lincoln Southeast played a big role in molding Watt as a coach.
He learned a lot about softball assisting Gene Lessman, who led the Knights to state gold. Watt also learned under two Hall of Fame basketball coaches in John Larsen and Jeff Smith, serving as assistants to both.
Under Larsen, Watt said he learned how to run a program and how to set high expectations. Under Smith, it was organization and positive energy.
At Southwest, Watt shared an office with the late Doug Kaltenberger, who coached baseball at the school. They shared thoughts, ideas and laughs.
When it comes to coaching, Watt said he's a traditionalist. He stresses values and a team-first mentality. He wants to teach in a way that will help kids reach college and life goals.
But Watt also likes a change-up. His current practice drills are different from three or five years ago, as he likes to look for new ways to teach practice.
That has translated to steady success on the ball diamond. Southwest has made 12 state tournament appearances, including 11 over the past 12 years.
Watt gives credit to the vision of former Southwest activities director Dave Gillespie, who wanted each sport at Southwest to be a model for the rest of the state.
"That kind of stuck with me," Watt said.
Helping Southwest's stability in softball is longtime assistant Lis Brenden, who has been part of all three state title runs.
"She does an outstanding job with players," Watt said. "Players love her and they can go to her with tough situations. She knows when to say things where you got to focus a little bit better. We do a great job of balancing off each other, and she has been a tremendous asset to Southwest softball."
Southwest's success also goes beyond the field. LSW has been honored as an Easton NFCA top-10 all-academic team six times in nine years.
Watt said he is appreciative of the contributions made by the players' parents and support of the other Southwest coaches over the years, and added that he wouldn't be able to make the time needed to run a strong program without the support of his family.
"I can't thank my wife, Ann, enough for what she's done," he said. "She has taken extra responsibility with the family as far as getting them places and supporting them. My family has been extremely supportive."