In this file photo Dawn Draper, center, looks over the field at Firestone Stadium with her two coaches, Terry Setser, left, and Steve Allen, right, prior to the start of the 2018 Division III state semifinals game. (Journal-Tribune photo by Sam Dillon)
When people hear about North Union High School, most think about a small school in northern Union County in the humble town of Richwood.
What many, however, hear about is a successful softball program that has been around for 42 years.
For 27 of those years, there has been one person who has been a part of the team as either a player or a coach.
Dawn Draper played for the Lady Cats for four seasons and later returned to her alma mater as the JV coach in 1998-1999.
She stepped up to the varsity level the next year to take over the program, where she has remained for the past 21 years.
That was until recently when she announced that she would be stepping down as the head coach. Draper said the decision didn’t come easily, but she wants to be able to spend more time with her family.
“I think it all had to do with my family,” she said. Draper has two sons, Carson and Nolan.
Carson has graduated from North Union, while Nolan just finished his freshmen year.
“When Carson was in school he would play travel baseball,so I was able to see 25 games in the summer,” she said. “Now that Nolan is not playing summer baseball, it is one of those things that I’m not going to be able to watch my kid play.”
However, the decision also has been one in the making for the 23-year coach.
“Every year I have been thinking records are meant to be broken, maybe I should give the program over to some young kid,” Draper said. “Then it was like all my staff wants to come back, so I’m not leaving.
“How can I walk away from this with all of this support?”
Leaving with Draper are her pitching coach Terry Setser and assistant coach Steve Allen.
Setser joined Draper from the beginning, taking on the role of mentoring all of Draper’s pitchers over the years.
Allen joined the program 15 years ago to coach when his daughter joined the team.
He has stayed with Draper since that time.
Draper’s relationship with Setser started long before she even thought of coaching the Lady Cats.
“I grew up with Terry,” Draper said.
Setser happened to be Draper’s neighbor and as the two grew, so did their relationship through softball.
When Draper took on the job of coaching the Lady Cats, she knew she wanted Setser by her side.
“I knew that I was going to have to have some kind of pitching coach,” Draper said. “Terry was the person I knew I needed to help me.
“We just have always clicked,” she said. “We finish each other’s sentences. He looks at me and I know what he is thinking.
“I knew he was going to be with me until the end.”
Draper, who has always credited the people around her for her success, says Allen brought a whole other level of coaching when he joined the staff.
He became an assistant when his daughter transferred from neighboring Ridgemont to play for North Union.
“He has been knowledgeable on a lot of other things defensively,” Draper said. “Then he started working on the field.
“He is a hard worker and has always believed that your field needs to look good,” she said. “I’m thankful to have Steve because he spent hours taking care of the field.
“Not only did he bring coaching, but a lot of other necessities that you need in a coaching staff.”
All of the support helped Draper coach NU to four state playoff appearances.
North Union earned a Division III state runner-up trophy in 2000 and made three state semifinal appearances in 2014, 2015 and 2018.
Draper also tallied a record of 447-113.
She inducted into the state and Central District coaches Halls of Fame and was named the Central District coach of the year four times.
Despite all of the wins, accolades and trophies Draper said her proudest achievement during her tenure has been her players.
“It’s the relationships with the girls,” she said. “It really isn’t about the softball.
“They have brought so many things to my teams,” said the coach. “It’s the commitment, effort, persistence and work ethic they brought to my teams.
“They’ve showed the younger ones how to develop as people.”
Out of all of the tough decisions Draper has made over the last two weeks she said telling her players was the hardest.
“I think some of them were clueless that this was the last year,” Draper said.
Even though she will not be in the dugout anymore, that isn’t going to keep Draper away from the field and the players she has come to love.
“I have two juniors that I want to be there for, but there will always be somebody because of the relationship I build with these kids,” Draper said. “They put a smile on my face every day. So, I told them that I would be there for their senior season yelling at them from the other side of the fence.”
Draper believes that her players are the heart of the program, she just was the person helping steer them in the right direction.
“I told the kids when I stepped down, don’t lower your standards,” she said. “You are winning the CBC next year. You are going to district finals. You are moving on and your going to be bigger and better.”
As for what is next for Draper, she believes she still has plenty to give the sports world.
“People have been saying congratulations on my retirement from coaching,” Draper said. “I wouldn’t say that I have retired. I just want to say that I stepped down as a head coach, that’s it. There is still plenty of time left. I think that if the time were right I would be up for something. I have coached three different sports, so it is not out of the question.”
For now though, Draper wants to just settle in for some personal time.
“Just take sometime for myself,” she said. “Not eating fast food all the time on bus rides home and vacationing. I want to do some things with my boys that we haven’t got to do in a long time.”
In this file photo, Dawn Draper, right, meets with Madison Wedding prior to an at bat during Draper’s 400th win of her career. (Journal-Tribune photo by Sam Dillon)