Looney left a legacy of aces

Peter Looney was as much a scientist as he was a softball coach.

The late Apponequet Regional High coach and mentor to countless young pitchers across southeastern New England built a reputation through a lifetime of study devoted to exactly one thing -- the mechanics of the underhanded windmill throw. His laboratory was "The Garage," a space at Looney's house that hardly ever saw a car. Instead there were hundreds upon thousands of pitches thrown by two generations of many of the region's best pitchers.

This is the first summer that Looney's garage hasn't been filled with the snapping sound of a leather mitt. After a four-month battle with cancer, he died in December -- and the softball community lost its mad genius.

Even in death, Looney's presence is felt with a legacy of quick wit, state championships and a list of disciples -- pitching luminaries who could fill an all-star roster many times over.

"His ability to communicate what he was trying to teach you, that's what separated him from everybody else," said Bob Huckabee, longtime friend and the current Apponequet softball coach. "Anybody can tell you how to throw a curveball, but he did it in such a way that would really resonate with the kids."

The prototype

When Looney began coaching softball in Lakeville in 1975, the sport was entirely different from its present form. It was more beer league than College World Series, with pitchers lobbing the ball toward the plate. Not to mention society's notion of female athletes was not quite what it is today.

Looney's quest was set in motion when a 6-foot-1 freshman named Holly Booth showed up for tryouts. The pitcher, who later played at South Carolina, was the coach's blank canvas, the ideal candidate to try something new.

Looney would turn Booth into what is believed to be the first fast-pitch windmill pitcher in Massachusetts high school history.

"It was tough at the beginning," Looney told me during a 2007 interview for a piece that appeared in the Taunton Daily Gazette. "Holly [Booth] would walk 16 batters or strike out 16 batters any game in her first season."

Before his great experiment, Looney sought to study from the best. Early in his tenure at Apponequet, he went to visit John Stratton, a pitching coach from Stratford, Conn. Looney later went on to co-write a book (now out of print) with Stratton about pitching.

Stratton's claim to fame was as the instructor of Joan Joyce, considered by many to be the greatest softball pitcher ever. Joyce, an athlete of Babe Didrikson Zaharias' ilk, is the source of a downright Ruth-ian tale herself. It has been long contested whether the Raybestos Brakettes' ace got the better of Ted Williams during a head-to-head matchup at a Jimmy Fund benefit in 1961.

Some in attendance maintain Williams sent several hits to the outfield off of Joyce. Meanwhile, the pitcher's account says the Splinter only managed to foul off a couple of pitches; the rest were swings and misses.

Whichever account is true, the fact remains that Joyce was the preeminent force in the game of softball for nearly three decades. And it was Joyce's delivery that would serve as Looney's example. He spent many a late night watching film reels and breaking down the finer points of Joyce's delivery. But the perfectionist in Looney wanted to first master the craft before teaching it. So Looney taught himself how to pitch.

Then, he taught Booth how pitch, and another, and another.

"After a while, it was easier to get a sit-down appointment with the pope than it was to get in a pitching lesson in Freetown," Huckabee said.

Booth was the first of a long line of Looney's pupils who went on to play in college. The accomplishments of those players are too numerous to quantify.

Looney also gained success with his Apponequet teams, winning state titles in 1986 and '87 -- part of a run that yielded four state championships. Around that time, he also began working with the University of Connecticut's softball program, pulling double duty with the Lakers and Huskies before a NCAA rule ended coaches' ability to work at both levels.

Looney continued working at UConn as a pitching coach until 2010, when he returned to his roots, resuming the coaching job at Apponequet.

"I was really excited when I heard [he was returning to coach]," said Lakers pitcher Rachel Eugenio, a rising senior who also received personal instruction from Looney. "He found a way to make everything fun. It would never be repetitive or tedious."

It was about this time last year, after making a trip to Quebec for an out-of-season softball tournament, that Looney returned home and complained about a crick in his neck. He told Huckabee, then head coach at Oliver Ames, that he "felt drunk" when he went from a sitting to standing position.

About a week later, Looney was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma.

Inside the insane asylum

Looney's favorite go-to line was: "Not bad for a scrub." Contained inside was a measure of his tongue-in-cheek view of life, along with a healthy dose of the perfectionist mentality that pervaded his students.

Among Looney's most recent protégés is King Philip's Meghan Rico, ESPNBoston.com's 2011 Ms. Softball award winner and starting pitcher on two state championship teams. Rico, who will pitch for George Washington University, admitted that the 2012 season became more difficult without Looney's guidance.

"All you'd have to do is describe what was happening to you on the phone and he'd be able to tell you exactly what you were doing wrong," Rico said. "He just knew. It was tough going through the season without him."

From the time Rico began taking lessons with Looney in seventh grade, her confidence and ability steadily rose. Looney's reputation for working with the area's best gave the Wrentham native the belief she could pitch at a higher level.

Looney's résumé spoke for itself. The revelation was his character.

"He had a nickname for everybody he taught," Rico said. "And the parents, the parents were always his favorite."

Looney had a bench inside The Garage labeled the "Insane Asylum." It was reserved, front-row seating for parents.

But what Looney cherished most were the photos of his "Garage Girls" littered across the walls -- pictures of high school champions, collegiate All-Americans on whom he left his imprint.

"Obviously, I'll have new coaches in the spring and I love them, that's why I chose the school," Rico said. "But nobody can replace him. He taught me every pitch that I know."

Carrying On

Bob Huckabee knew Peter Looney for almost two decades. He first met Looney when his daughter was about 8 years old. She was a catcher, but had been catching pitchers beyond her age group. Looney was looking for a catcher to work with his younger students and he saw potential in Huckabee's daughter, who later went on to star at New Bedford High.

During his lessons, Looney took two different approaches with pitchers. He personally caught his older students. He wanted to see the rotation and break on their pitches. With his younger pitchers, Looney chose to observe from the side, taking note of their foot placement during delivery. Huckabee's daughter afforded him the opportunity.

Huckabee and Looney's friendship evolved from those early sessions.

"When we'd finish solving all the world's problems at Dunkin' Donuts, then we'd talk about softball," Huckabee said of their frequent meetings over coffee.

In November, Looney reached out to Huckabee, who'd spent the previous six seasons coaching at Oliver Ames, to help shoulder the load at Apponequet. He wanted someone he trusted to help steward the program if he wasn't able to return at full power.

Meanwhile, Looney fought cancer head on. When he was told the tumor was "inoperable," he opted for surgery. Against the odds, the procedure was a success, but the cancer spread. Looney passed away just before Christmas.

"You think that all the good guys are supposed to live forever, and all the bad guys, if they go, they go," Huckabee said. "He was one of the good ones, he wasn't supposed to go.

"He made us all look bad. He was 67 years old and he looked like he wasn't a day over 50. He'd get up at the crack of dawn and run or go for a bike ride. He's not the guy that's supposed to go."

That unlimited energy manifested itself in many ways. In his life, Looney was an athlete, a teacher, an athletic director at Stoughton High, and a coach of softball, cross country and field hockey.

But the lifelong lessons he taught are what will endure.

"He used to tell us all the time that you spend about 30 years of your life sleeping," Lakers outfielder Danielle Belliveau said during a softball practice last spring, "so you need to get your living in."

Note: The Looney Legacy Foundation was founded in Peter Looney's memory to support efforts to find a cure for cancer and promote melanoma prevention. To find out more, visit www.looneylegacy.org.