Former Ross High School softball coach Paul Fernandez poses with his replacement, Anna Winters, at the school this week. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

Changing of the Ramball guard: Fernandez out, Winters in as head coach

The longtime Ross High School softball coach decided a 26-year run was long enough and stepped down in July, leaving a program that performed at a consistently high level during his tenure.

“It was 26 years with softball — and actually 10 years before that I was coaching track at the junior high level — so 36 years of my spring have been a little busy,” said Fernandez, who will celebrate his 57th birthday next month. “Being retired from teaching for a few years now, it was time to try something different in the spring.”

Ross High School coach Anna Winters talks about taking over the softball program at her alma mater.

He was an assistant for one season and the head coach for 25 years (four as co-head coach with Gary Weitzel), compiling a 586-136 record at the helm.

Fernandez took six Ross teams to the state tournament, capturing the Division II state championship in 2009.

“It’s part of me,” said Fernandez, a 1978 RHS graduate who also coached football and boys and girls basketball in the district. “The memories, tears of joy, tears of sadness, the heartaches, the happiness, all the celebrations … it just gets entwined in you. That whole Ramball family tradition, I’m so proud to be a part of that.

Former Ross High School coach Paul Fernandez talks about his career and decision to leave the Ramball softball program.

“It’s hard to talk about it in the past tense. So many players that I’ve been fortunate to be part of their lives. They’re family, and they’ll always be family.

“I’ll be in the area, and I’ll still be pulling for the Ramball Nation and the Ramball program. I may not be here, but I’ll be here in one way or another. Spirit, mind, soul, blood … part of me’s out there on that field literally. Go Ramball.”

He’s happy that his successor is somebody from within that family.

Anna Winters — the former Anna Smith, a 2007 Ross graduate who holds most of the Rams’ pitching records — is the new head coach.

Fernandez pointed out that Winters and Amy (Weitzel) McFarland are the only two Ross softball players to have their numbers retired.

“This is a little bit of closure for me,” Fernandez said. “I’m really excited about the selection. Anna knows the traditions of things. She’ll bring that excitement. She’s competitive. She’ll fit in perfectly.”

Winters, 27, is a stay-at-home mom and has two young children, ages 2 and four months. She didn’t coach last year.

“I’m done having babies now, so it’s time for me to focus on something different,” Winters said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to come back and coach. If the position of head coach wasn’t available, I would’ve reached out in any other way.

“I love softball. I love Ramball. Ross softball has meant so much to me my entire life. There’s nothing like it, so I definitely want to keep the traditions going and keep it in the family atmosphere.”

Is there pressure taking over a state-contending program and replacing a Hall of Fame coach?

“Lots of pressure, but it’s good pressure,” said Winters, who coached at the University of Rio Grande for a year and with the Ross junior varsity for a year. “I was a pitcher. I love pressure. I look forward to getting out there and showing everyone that we’re going to keep the tradition going.”

Winters said two of her coaches have been determined. Rachel Patton will be a varsity assistant, while Dale Vangen will coach the reserves.

“I won’t be a hard coach, but I’ll definitely expect a lot of the girls. I want them to work hard, and I’m going to work hard for them,” Winters said. “This is a lot to live up to. Hopefully I can make Fern proud.”

Ross made it to the Division II Final Four last spring, losing 18-0 to LaGrange Keystone in the semifinals at Firestone Stadium in Akron.

Fernandez said he knew that was going to be his last game, but he took a little time to ponder his resignation before making it official.

He talked about his appreciation for his coaches through the years, especially Weitzel, Bob Walton and Jim Kernohan. He noted that administrator Greg Young was among the program’s biggest fans, and he thanked his super scouts, Gregg Combs and Paul Reasch.

Fernandez has been contemplating this move for a while. Not many people know that he was a finalist for the Rio Grande head coaching job a couple years ago.

His father Ben’s death in 2013 was a contributing factor. His son Sam has been coaching with him at Ross, but departed after last season to become a student manager in the Miami University program.

“He’s looking to coach at the college level,” Fernandez said. “Knowing that he wasn’t coming back, I just felt the time was right. The cupboard’s not bare. That Ramball bus is fully fueled and ready to go. I can see at least through the fifth-grade level that we have some really good-looking players that are going to keep on going.”

He had no background as a fast-pitch softball player or coach when he joined the Ross coaching staff in 1991. Fernandez agreed to help Weitzel and Walton after coaching their daughters in junior high basketball.

“That spring, before we had any practices or anything, Bob and Gary said they were going to be working on the field and asked if I wanted to come out and help,” Fernandez said. “They’ve got this huge pile of dirt on the field. Bob’s got this grader, and Gary’s on his tractor with this huge steel I-beam.

“They’re trying to pull this dirt, and it’s just not heavy enough to do it. I hear, ‘Hey, can you sit on the back of that?’ So I sit on the back of this I-beam while he drags the field, and we went around in circles for I don’t know how long. I’m like, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’

“After they were done, of course they popped open some Millers. They’re like, ‘You’re going to be a pretty good coach. You’re doing fine.’ And the next thing you know, I’m a coach. Here we are today, and all because they needed some weight on a beam.”

The Anna Winters File

Age: 27

Residence: Hamilton

Family: Husband Dustin, children Harper (2) and Hunter (four months)

High School: Ross, Class of 2007

College: Rio Grande, bachelor’s degree in health care administration (minor in business management) in 2012

Coaching History: One season as volunteer pitching coach at Rio Grande, one season with the junior varsity at Ross

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