End of an Era: Trinity's Whittle, ACA's Goodman hopeful for one last playoff run

Alabama Christian Academy softball coach Chris Goodman, left, Trinity Presbyterian baseball coach Ken Whittle, right, have a combined 11 state championships and more than 2,100 wins between them as they close out their careers in 2021.

Between them, they have more than 2,100 wins spanning four decades. High school athletics in this area have undergone changes before but never have the retirement of two icons like Trinity Presbyterian baseball coach Ken Whittle and Alabama Christian Academy softball coach Chris Goodman come at the same time.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Prattville Christian basketball coach Jason Roberson, who played shortstop on Whittle’s team in the mid 1990s and against Goodman’s baseball teams as a player and his basketball teams as a coach. “Those guys have been so loyal and dedicated to their schools for so long and they’ve both have had next-level success. It’s kind of sad. You associate Trinity baseball with Coach Whittle and ACA softball and baseball with Chris Goodman. That’s two of the most successful coaches in this area. Life moves on, but it’s certainly going to have a different feel to it.”

Whittle, a few years ahead of Goodman at age 67, arrived first, a Florida native hired out of Huntingdon College in 1978 as a physical education teacher at Trinity by then-headmaster Brian Willett. He would work as an assistant under Johnny Butler to launch a baseball program the following year, then was instructed by Willett to start the baseball program in earnest in 1981.

“I was the head basketball coach and I was the middle school head football coach,” Whittle said. “I didn’t know a thing. I was terrible as a coach but I had some great mentors. There just wasn’t that much interest in baseball at the time. They had a baseball program for one year and Johnny Butler and I did it. It wasn’t baseball as I perceived it. We didn’t have a lot of kids.

“Brian Willett came to me and said we want you to start the baseball program back up and I said, if we do this, are we going to do it every year?”

Just as Whittle was making his start, Goodman was completing his high school career at Wetumpka High as a member of the state championship basketball teams of 1979 and 1980 and a baseball player for Stokely Bazemore’s Indians. He took those talents to Faulkner University to continue playing baseball for the Eagles.

“I actually started helping at ACA when I was a freshman at Faulkner,” Goodman recalled. “I went there to play baseball. I sat on the bench at Wetumpka when they won back-to-back state championships in basketball and knew I wanted to be a coach. Ronnie Sewell was the head basketball coach here and he convinced me, when I wasn’t playing baseball, to help him coach basketball.”

By the time Goodman broke into the coaching ranks as a young baseball coach, he knew there was a standard he had to overtake in order to build a championship program.

“Ken was the standard,” Goodman said. “Trinity was the program I wanted to get Alabama Christian to, to compete against them. By the 90s, we had some good wars. Poor Knute Elmore was over at Montgomery Academy and probably had the third-best team in the state and couldn’t get out of the area. There were some great battles with high-quality players.”

Whittle had guided his new program to the state playoffs in his third season as a coach, to the Class 1A semifinals in his fourth year and to a state championship in his fifth year (in 1985). But just as quickly, his teams struggled to make the playoffs as only the area champion made the playoffs in those days.

In 1989, when the playoff format was changed to accept both area champions and area runners-up, Trinity reached the playoffs only to lose to Goodman’s Alabama Christian team 2-1 in the first round.

“We had some great games,” Whittle said. “Chris Goodman made me a better coach because of the way he approached his coaching. It was just great competition. When you showed up, you’d better be ready to play because Chris was getting after you.”

From the time the playoffs expanded to 32 teams in 1989, Whittle has reached the playoffs every year but one. He has more state championships (five) over that span than first-round playoff losses (four). Seventeen of those 32 teams reached the quarterfinal round, establishing a standard of excellence that many programs hope for but rarely achieve.

“The standard for us has always been to improve and get better,” Whittle said. “I learned so much from other coaches. When I first started, I wasn’t a good coach and I figured I’d better watch these other guys who have done it before and won. Like Earl Miller at G.W. Long, unbelievable coach. There are other programs I watched and I called and asked questions. I got to see other baseball coaches do it the right way.”

Goodman, meanwhile, established a standard in a different manner. In baseball, his first two teams missed the state playoffs in 1986 and 1987, but 17 of his final 19 ACA teams made the playoffs, reaching the finals in 1994 and 2004 and winning state championships in 1995 and 2000. During that same era (1986-2001), he doubled his duties as the boys’ basketball coach, winning the first of four area championships in his first season and guiding his team to the playoffs nine times in 16 years.

ACA hasn’t had the same level of success in either sport since that time. Goodman stepped down from boys’ basketball after the 2001 season as the school’s winningest coach with a record of 216-168. When he stepped down from baseball after the 2006 season, his record of 389-192 left him as the school’s winningest baseball coach as well.

“We never did win a state championship in basketball and that was one thing I always wanted to win,” Goodman said. “We tried it with the guys and got pretty deep (in the playoffs) a couple of times and tried it with the girls and got a little deeper. I was going to get out of basketball totally and help coach (Don) Gilliam when he took over football -- because I couldn’t coach all three (sports) -- and Jim Naylor had quit coaching girls basketball. They asked if I could coach girls’ basketball for a year, but we went 26-2 (in 2002) so I said, ‘I can’t give it up now’ and kept it for 10 years. I never envisioned myself coaching girls’ basketball but I enjoyed it.”

A few years later, as Denise Ainsworth stepped down from softball to focus on being the school’s athletic director, Goodman switched from baseball to softball, coaching his daughters in both girls’ basketball and softball.

“That was the highlight of my coaching career, being able to coach my girls,” he said. “One of them (Brooklyn) got three rings and one of them (Bailey) got three runners-up. That was a lot of fun.

“One thing that I thought was neat was they were my basketball players, then they were my baseball players. Or they were my girls’ basketball players, then they were my softball players. So it wasn’t like I had to work with another coach to make sure we were getting the work done in the offseason. We would practice basketball, then we would go to the softball field.”

In girls’ basketball, he won six area championships in 11 years, earning 10 trips to the state playoffs, six regional appearances and one state tournament appearance during that span. He stepped down after the 2012 season with a record of 225-93, becoming ACA’s winningest girls’ basketball coach in the process.

But it is softball where Goodman has brought the most fame to the school. Taking over from a championship-caliber coach, Goodman and the Eagles never missed a beat, winning a state championship in his first season (2007) and again in 2009 and 2019 while finishing as runner-up in 2010, 2013 and 2014.

Just as Whittle’s program has become synonymous with championship baseball, Goodman has done the same thing with softball.

“They have been icons in sports in this area for years,” St. James coach Keith Lucky said. “Both of them have always done it right with their teams and they have always been ultra-competitive. I respect both of those men. For years, I told Ken Whittle if my son wasn’t playing for me, I’d want him to play for you. He’s been a great friend -- and competitor -- through the years and I respect that man more than you will ever know.

“Chris is the same way. He got out of baseball a while back and started coaching girls basketball and then other sports. I would send my daughter to play for him because he’s a very good, competitive person. I’m going to miss them. It will change the face of athletics around here, that’s for sure.”

The fact that Goodman established a reputation as a championship-caliber coach in baseball, then changed sports and accomplished even more in softball isn’t a surprise to Lucky.

“That just tells you the quality of the coach,” he said. “A coach’s job is to motivate and stroke the kids and he gets the most out of his kids. That’s why he’s so great at it. He knows the sport and he knows how to motivate the kids to get the most out of them. That’s what he has done for years.”

Goodman is quick to point out, however, that his demeanor in his later years is much more conducive to coaching girls.

“I think God blessed me in the fact that He let me get a little older before I started coaching girls,” Goodman said, “because they probably couldn’t have handled a young (version of Goodman). I guess, like a lot of coaches, I mellowed out later and made a lot of coaching mistakes early but I was fortunate to have a lot of good players through the years. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of talent. It’s nothing that I’ve done.”

Former ACA baseball player Bret Ingram, whose daughter Haley plays for Goodman on the softball team, agrees with his coach.

“The intensity was greater in those early days,” Ingram said. “He’s changed a lot. I don’t think my daughter has seen a tenth of what he had shown me back when I played in the late 1980s. But he’s a great guy. He’s done wonders for the school and he’s helped out my daughter tremendously. I’m so thankful that she had a chance to be coached by my old high school coach.”

Haley feels the same way.

“I love playing for Coach Goodman,” she said. “He’s calmed down a lot. I’ve seen him yell and break clipboards but it just pushes everyone to do better. I knew that playing for him would teach me life lessons and life goals and that’s what it did. He never gave up on me and pushed me because he knew I had potential and I needed to use it.”

Ingram’s story isn’t unique. As Whittle prepares for the end of his 41st season and Goodman nears the end of his 36th, both coaches have a wealth of memories from the positive impact they’ve made on high school sports in this region.

“Those are two guys who have been coaching in the city for who knows how long and had a tremendous impact on the game of baseball and softball,” Montgomery Academy coach Stephen Vosel said. “Think about the number of kids those two have impacted.”

Vosel is one of those, saying he never would have become a coach without the influence of Whittle.

“He taught me in class and coached me in football and in baseball,” Vosel said. “He and I always had a good relationship as a player. When I was done at AUM, I told him I felt my calling was coaching and teaching. From that day on, he’s put his arm around me and has been a mentor. Even with me being at Montgomery Academy and him being at Trinity, we talk after every single practice, after every single game. When I’m frustrated and down about something, he’s constantly talking to me, encouraging me. Our relationship is really unique.”

Prattville Christian Academy coach Jason Roberson offers a similar view of Whittle.

“Coach Whittle was one of those guys that made me want to get into coaching,” Roberson said. “He meant the world to me. Everybody knows what a great baseball coach he is. But I think a lot of people also know, if you’ve been around him, what a great person he is. He’s just a great man. When I played baseball for him, I wanted to be my very best for him. I just respected him that much.

“He was the same person every day -- always working hard, always helping us improve. But he was also someone as a player you could have a great relationship with because he was just a good guy. I was definitely blessed to be able to have a chance to play for him.”

Both coaches are trying to get this year’s squads to play to the standard they’ve established, recognizing the fact that last year’s suspension of play took something out of their programs. It took something out of them as individuals as well.

“You reach a point where you just know it’s time,” Whittle said. “Last year’s pandemic was just hard mentally and physically. You had a group of guys who were just jelling together, playing hard, we were 13-3 at the time. We lost that last half of the season and it drained me a little bit. But I didn’t want to finish like that.”

He came back for one last season. Goodman had a similar moment of reflection after play was suspended last season.

“Even though we missed the 2020 season -- we had a really good chance to win it back to back -- I was OK staying at home on my farm with my dogs,” he said. “I enjoyed it. COVID taught me it was OK.

“Luckily, I’m married to a very smart woman who is a hospitalist and she likes me to be home with her. I like my bird dog business and I like to play golf and I’m healthy enough. It’s just time to move on. There’s no particular reason. It’s just been in the back of my mind. My wife’s been after me for a couple of years that I could retire whenever I wanted to.”

Whittle, who has 782 wins in 1,151 games, was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2012. The baseball field, recently renamed in his honor, is perfectly manicured to his specifications, but he isn’t sure whether he’ll return when the 2021 season in complete.

“I’ve got three grand babies, girls, and I get to learn how to handle that,” he said. “I missed that with my girls. I loved what I did but I also missed those times.

“Hopefully, I’ll come back to watch. But I’m going to be sitting in the corner. I love our people but I just want to watch the game. Whoever takes over, I don’t want somebody to come ask me, ‘Would you have done it this way?’ More than likely, the guy’s doing a better job than I would have, anyway.”

Goodman, who has 1,389 wins in 2,054 games, will be a future AHSAA Hall of Fame member. Batting cages adjacent to the field were recently completed and named in his honor, but the field is a pet project of his. Still, the Wetumpka native isn’t likely to make many return trips once the 2021 season is complete.

“We’re going to knock the dust off the golf clubs and we’re going to get bird dogs ready for next hunting season,” he said. “And then I’ve got a couple of dogs coming in to train.

“I can find something to do. It’s time. I’ll miss the kids, but I’ve got a great group of friends.”

Before that happens, both teams will be competing in hopes of ending an era on the right note.

“We want to win it one more time for him,” Haley Ingram said.