LAUREL HILL — If asked, Dale Willis will tell you that baseball has been good to him, but don't expect him to toot his own horn about his accomplishments.
From playing baseball as a boy in Ohio to playing the sport on a national championship team at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, coaching at Laurel Hill School and, in retirement, watching his grandson, former Crestview High School standout Roman Donofro, Willis has enjoyed his baseball journey.
That journey didn't take him to Cooperstown, New York, and the Baseball Hall of Fame, but it did take him to the William Carey Hall of Fame.
Willis, a hard-hitting third baseman for the Crusaders and a member of the school's 1969 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship team, is among William Carey's nine newest Hall of Fame members.
"I didn't really think a whole lot of it until I went back to the induction ceremony itself and got to spend time with my teammates," he said. "At the time it seemed a lot more important to them than it was to myself, because I've been around baseball all my life, coaching and watching my grandson play and that kind of thing.
"It was a real good experience. Once you're there and your name is called out, you are with your buddies and you remember the really special times you had.
"It was just a real special thing and I'm very appreciative to William Carey for the opportunity to be inducted in the Hall of Fame."
Dale's wife, Devona, said the induction ceremony brought back fond memories.
"He's pretty modest and humble about this," she said. "When we got back, the talk is continuously about how far Dale hit the ball. They have never seen anybody with a wooden bat hit the ball that far.
"Those were exciting times. I was pregnant with our daughter, Kelly Donofro, who teaches at the high school. I couldn't go with them because it was the end of my pregnancy and I had to listen to the game on an old staticy radio."
Willis was four-year starter at third base for the Crusaders, compiling a .314 career batting average while slugging 22 home runs and driving in 104 runs.
He was the team's Most Valuable Player as a sophomore and junior, and a co-captain as a senior.
Willis said William Carey was 24-5 his junior year and he was able to convince a pitcher from another team to transfer for the 1969 season. That pitcher turned out to be the championship puzzle's final piece.
Turn to coaching
A knee injury his senior year forced Willis to give up his dream of professional baseball and turn to coaching.
As luck would have it, a former William Carey basketball player, Bobby Welch, was the Laurel Hill basketball coach, and when the Hoboes needed a baseball coach he asked Willis if he was interested.
The rest is history.
Willis coached the Hoboes for 16 seasons and Crestview High for two years before moving into school administration.
His 1979 Laurel Hill baseball team is the only baseball team in school history to play in the state final four.
In retirement, Willis watched his grandson continue the family tradition of excellence as Donofro helped lead Crestview to the 2013 district championship.
When asked what was more special — his playing days or watching his grandson pitch — Willis quickly said it was sharing Roman's experience.
Forty-five years after helping lead William Carey to the 5-3 win over LaVerne, Calif., for the national championship, Willis found himself coming full circle and fully able to appreciate the experience.
"I would say it was (the crowning achievement of his baseball experience)," Willis said. "I really enjoyed the coaching at Laurel Hill when we got to go to the state tournament and that kind of thing.
"Up until the induction, that was probably my fondest memory of baseball other than winning the national championship."
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524.