Zylstra steps aside after half century of coaching

Denny Zylstra - --
Denny Zylstra
— image credit: --

When the Coupeville fastpitch team packed up its equipment after its final game May 10, assistant coach Denny Zylstra also put away his gear. Unlike the Wolves, he won’t be getting it back out in 2013.

Zylstra decided to end his 50-year coaching career this spring.

Zylstra, 71 and a 1958 graduate of Coupeville High School, was encouraged to go into coaching by one of his high school coaches, Mert Waller.

“He kept talking to me about coaching,” Zylstra said. “He said I had a mind for it, the right temperament for it.”

After graduation, Zylstra worked for Boeing for six months and then joined the Navy. In 1960 he started his coaching career by guiding a Little League team in Virginia Beach. He continued to coach Little League in 1964 and ‘65 when he moved to San Francisco.

From 1965 to ‘75, he coached women’s softball in Bremerton and Long Beach.

He returned to Whidbey Island in 1975 and coached junior softball (13- to 15-year olds) through 1985.

From there he was an assistant and then head coach for Skagit Valley College from 1986 to 1997; the stint included two second-place finishes. He led Oak Harbor High School from 1999 to 2002, then went back to Skagit from 2004 to ‘08.

Finally, he returned home to Coupeville High School in 2009 as head coach for two years and then as an assistant.

“I always told myself, if I wasn’t having a good time, I would step away. A lot of it is physical ---- I’m a little too intense. My doctor said it would be smart for me to get away from coaching if I’d like to be around to watch my grandkids play.”

Zylstra said the relationships he built over the years are the highlights of his career. “I still hear from kids from 20 years ago,” he said. “They send me photos of their kids and grandkids.”

Zylstra played football, basketball and baseball for Coupeville High School, and continued competing for many years, even while coaching. He played football  until he was 37 and basketball until he was 45. While in Bremerton, his base basketball team placed second in the West Coast Region.

He began playing softball when he was 8, and he played on an adult men’s team, which included Waller, when he was in high school. At that time, Whidbey Island had its own softball league of about 20 teams. Through the years he played in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Spain, Italy and most of the U.S., eventually pitching in state tournaments in Virginia, California and Washington.

Once he returned to Whidbey, he played on the base team until his retirement in 1978. He also competed in the Everett’s men’s league for 17 years. At 41, he sponsored and pitched a team to second place in the Washington championships.

Some years he pitched in three different leagues at the same time. “I would throw 150 to 160 games a year. I would get a little tired, but they would give me a few beers to keep me loose.”

Though he is retiring, he still plans to help those who ask for individual tutoring, and next spring he will man the concession stand at Coupeville fastpitch games.

He and his wife, Marcia, his high-school sweetheart, will also continue to be among Coupeville’s biggest fans, attending all the football and basketball games.

He said it is tough to walk away. “I really enjoyed this year’s team...I always enjoyed coaching, the parents, the kids and getting after the umpires.”

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