June 2, 2020 5:13:38 PM
Every year, Starkville Academy athletic director Chase Nicholson called up Lee Berryhill with the same question: "'Hey, when are you ready to come work here?'"
But the accomplished East Webster softball coach's answer never changed.
"'I'm not ready yet,'" Berryhill told Nicholson time after time. "'I'm not ready yet.'"
He's ready now.
Last Wednesday, Berryhill -- a winner of five state championships in slow-pitch and fast-pitch softball in eight years with the Wolverines -- announced his retirement from East Webster.
It was a retirement that didn't last long, as Berryhill was announced as Starkville Academy's new head softball coach Monday evening.
"We pounced on him like a cougar," Nicholson told The Dispatch on Tuesday.
Berryhill, who won two state titles coaching baseball at Eupora for over a decade before heading to East Webster, said he has been "very blessed" for the 25 years he spent in Webster County. While he'd worked enough years to retire from the public school ranks and draw retirement money from the state government, Berryhill wasn't ready to leave.
"I'd probably got the best softball coaching job in Mississippi where I was at," Berryhill told The Dispatch. He confided to friends and colleagues that he wasn't leaving Maben until he got "something I couldn't turn down.'"
Berryhill realized Starkville Academy was the perfect place for him to make his mark on a new softball program as well as earning his retirement checks.
"It took the right phone call to get me to leave East Webster, and I got the right phone call," Berryhill said.
Nicholson said the addition of Berryhill to the Volunteers' staff is a "game-changer" for the school, as the coach brings an extensive background and considerable success to the table.
"We're so excited to have him here, to have the experience that he brings not just in softball but athletics as a whole," Nicholson said.
Berryhill will make his impact on the Volunteers' baseball team, too. He'll assist baseball coach Thomas Berkery, who is stepping down from his position as the Vols' head softball coach but will serve as Berryhill's assistant with the team.
"I'm confident we'll be confident with each other and feed off of each other and give each other advice," Berryhill said. "I think it'll be a great relationship between the both of us, and I'm looking forward to working there."
Nicholson said he's seen the impact that the addition of veteran basketball coach Bill Ball has made on young coaches Marianne Ward, who took over the girls program this offseason, and Lee Blair, who coaches the seventh grade boys team. He hopes that same veteran presence that Berryhill brings with him can assist Berkery -- Nicholson and headmaster Jeremy Nicholas refer to the two coaches as the "dynamic duo" -- in a crunch.
"That extra knowledge and that extra experience are really gonna help him out in those situations," Nicholson said.
He said Berryhill was intrigued by the quality of the softball program at Starkville Academy and wanted a chance to be a part of the Vols' "family atmosphere." The athletic director described Berryhill as a "school guy" who is invested in forming connections with players, parents and fellow coaches, but he also emphasized that Berryhill isn't done making an on-field impact just yet.
"He's still got plenty of years left in him," Nicholson said.
Berryhill said he knows he'll miss the relationships he built in his decades in Webster County, but he's ready to make new ones in Starkville beginning this fall.
"I'm gonna leave special people, but at the same time, I know I'm gonna meet special people," Berryhill said.
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.