If you didn’t watch Athens State softball when it was around or know someone that played, you might never come across it in the history books. They never won any national championships and were around for just over a decade.
For a brief time, however, Athens State’s softball team was one of the best in the nation. The man behind ASU’s sudden surge to the top of fast-pitch softball, Larry Keenum, will be inducted into the Limestone County Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.
“During the mid-90s, this was before softball was introduced to the SEC, your elite programs were outside Alabama,” said Barry Devine, who served as an assistant coach with Keenum at Athens State. “We were getting Division-1 talent at Athens State and it showed. If we had to be put in D-1 status at that time, we were probably a top-20 team. That was as good as it got for us in the mid-90s. After that, everybody started playing fast-pitch softball and kind of diluted our talent.”
Keenum coached Athens State from its infancy until the school closed its athletic programs in 2004.
“The best way to describe Larry’s coaching style was unorthodox, but very effective,” said Devine. “He made it fun for the girls.”
Devine became the school’s first softball coach when the program was created in 1991. Devine remembers that first season at ASU when the team played at Old Christopher Park before moving on campus the following season.
“Larry didn’t pull any punches, he played the best,” he said. “We played some D-1 teams and held our own. That first year, we had some growing pains, but it paid off the second year. That second team kind of set the foundation for our program. From that point forward, we took off.”
Keenum’s first season at ASU saw a mix of girls who played slow-pitch softball in junior college to some of the state’s best fast-pitch softball players from high school. One of the team’s best players during that time was Mary Jane Hobbs, who started at first base in the team’s first two seasons.
“He was a good instructor, fundamentally sound,” said Hobbs. “He was very competitive. He worked hard at trying to instill in us a work ethic and having the proper attitude on and off the field.”
Hobbs, now the head coach at Elkmont, was one of several former players who went on to be coaches. Brett Nave, who served as team manager from 1997 to 2000, is now the head coach at East Limestone.
“He was extremely knowledgeable” said Nave. “One of the best teachers of hitting that I’ve ever been around. He helps me to this day. He really helped me when I first started coaching. I still call him or send him an email, just to hear from someone who has so much experience.”
Nave remembers Athens State being ranked No. 2 in NAIA when he arrived at the school and “always somewhere in the top five or six.” One game that stands out was the day No. 1-ranked Oklahoma City came to Athens.
“He (Keenum) worked with every player differently,” remembers Nave. “Sometimes coaches try to take every player and do it their way. With him, he developed each player individually.”
The most impressive thing about Keenum was how fast he got the team to an elite level. With almost no experience coaching softball, Keenum was able to build the program into a contender within two years.
“He developed that team from its infancy,” said Devine. “To start that program and within four years finish second in the country is quite an impressive start.”
Keenum was inducted into the Alabama Junior and Community College Hall of Fame in 1996 and is already a member of the Morgan County Hall of Fame for his baseball career at Calhoun Community College.
“You won’t find a finer human being, husband, father and son than Larry Keenum,” said Devine. “He’s always been there for his mother, wife and two girls. He’s just a good man. Fun loving, with a great sense of humor; he made it fun for those girls to play.”