About a month ago, Chuck Stegall stepped out of his team’s dugout and looked up at the stadium lights.
It was a balmy Friday night — the kind of night Stegall had grown accustomed to in his 22 years as head coach of the Fort Mill softball program. He had just seen his team use a 13-run sixth inning against rival Nation Ford on the road in the final game of the 2022 regular season.
The victory earned a Fort Mill Area Softball Championship. But it also closed a chapter.
“Man, this is my last regular season game,” Stegall said that night in April. He wore his trademark bright yellow Fort Mill polo shirt, white cap and easy smile, and his eyes bounced off the pitch as he spoke, as if searching for stories, memories and emotions.
“The playoffs are going to be fun,” he continued, “but they’re going to be bittersweet.”
Stegall’s last game of his high school coaching career was on Friday night at Blythewood. It was a 4-2 victory for Fort Mill that gave the school its first state championship in program history.
This victory came after a lot of “fun”, as Stegall had predicted. He arrived after three wins in the district bracket, three wins in the Upper State bracket and several impromptu ice baths. It came after he kept a particular promise, one that stated that Stegall dyes her hair royal blue ahead of the state championship series. And it was the direct result of two redeeming wins in the State Championship Series after what seemed like a debilitating Game 1 loss.
And just as Stegall predicted, his team’s run to the top was also bittersweet for him.
Because this is the last playoff he will have.
Stegall will officially end his prep coaching career after coaching in the North-South All-Star Game in June. He is retiring because of his general health condition, he told the Herald last month – because of an aching back and sore knees and other issues that prevent him from sitting on buckets in high school softball dugouts for the rest of his life, which he might’ve chosen to do otherwise.
He will leave office with a rich legacy, a riddled with regional championships and six consecutive district championships and a state championship.
But Stegall will also leave a legacy based on who he is.
Stegall grew up in Fort Mill. Both sides of his family had lived in Fort Mill for generations, he said.
At a time when his hometown is growing and changing faster than ever—when schools in the Fort Mill School District apparently can’t be built fast enough—Stegall proudly hasn’t changed much.
He described this year’s team as “country scrappy” – affectionately calling them hungry hard workers and a group that follows a simple maxim: “You do what you have to do, when you have to do it.”
“Fort Mill used to be country, and we did things that we would say city people don’t do,” Stegall said with his southern drawl and a chuckle. He added: “The scrappy part is this: I think if you play the game, you play it 110%. You never leave anything in your bag, or any regrets on the pitch. … And it’s just being a country junkie You walk in and do what you gotta do.
People who have spent time with him say that part of Stegall has always been reflected in the teams he has coached.
“They kind of took on his personality,” Fort Mill athletic director Dwayne Hartsoe told the Herald on Friday. “Disjointed team. They started playing very well at the right time of the year.
Hartsoe added: “He loves kids. The kids love it. He is continuously working on the game, working on the pitch. It’s just great to see him come out like this as a state champion.
John Turner, who broadcasts about as many Fort Mill sporting events as humanly possible and has come to know Stegall well over the years, said Stegall has made Fort Mill softball what it is. .
“What does Chuck mean to Fort Mill?” He is Fort Mill,” Turner wrote in a direct message on Twitter in the wee hours of Saturday morning. He added: “People come and go from FMHS, but Chuck is one of the last of a generation to have shaped what people see today. Take a program next to nothing and build a real program. … He’ll give the players all the credit, but tonight is the culmination of all his hard work. He’s a real gentleman, and now he’s a champion.
Stegall’s players also wanted the title for him.
“I’m so glad we can give him this in his senior year,” said Maddie Drerup, Fort Mill starting senior pitcher and USC Upstate signing. “He’s been doing this for about 20 years now, and to see his face when he won that championship trophy is quite special.”
Heading into the playoffs on that aforementioned Friday night in April, Stegall struggled to express how he felt. “You get that feeling,” he said, looking around the pitch with a smile. “You get that feeling.”
Maybe that feeling was excitement. Maybe that feeling was optimism – hope that he could do something he’d never done before after all these years.
Whatever the feeling, it was surely validated on Friday.
“There were times when I sat down with my athletic director frustrated because we didn’t get over that little bump,” Stegall said with a state championship trophy in hand. “And he calmed down a couple of times and said, ‘Coach, you’re doing a great job. It will happen. It will happen.'”
Stegall then laughed, “I hate to say it, but he was right.”
This story was originally published May 28, 2022 6:00 a.m.