Fred Caldwell took an awful softball program at Penn State Altoona and turned it into a two-time NCAA Tournament team.
Now, he’s looking to extend the winning tradition for a program where he began coaching.
Caldwell was named the new head coach at Bellefonte High School after a vote from the Bellefonte Area School Board on Tuesday. Caldwell replaces Gregg Kohlhepp, who retired after nine seasons as head coach.
Caldwell began coaching career as a volunteer assistant at Bellefonte under former head coach John Wetzler. At the time, Caldwell’s daughter, Laura, was a standout pitcher for the Lady Raiders.
He remained with the program after Laura, who still owns every major pitching record at Bellefonte and St. Francis University, graduated, working as a full-time assistant under Wetzler and Kohlhepp.
“The program was great for Laura,” said Caldwell. “I stayed three years after she graduated because I wanted to try to give something back to the program.
“To be the head coach is such an honor. It’s kind of a dream come true. When I was there, I was happy to be an assistant and to come back and have the opportunity to become the head coach is a amazing.”
Caldwell took over at Penn State Altoona, a program that was among the worst in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference. Taking advantage of the talent in Central Pennsylvania, Caldwell took a program that had gone 12-57 in its previous two seasons and turned it into a winner (21-18-1) in its first season. Caldwell went on record a 135-67-1 record. His teams captured the conference title that past two seasons and earned NCAA berths.
“I was extremely proud of what we accomplished there,” he said. “The program had not been successful at all.”
The program became a haven for Centre County softball talent. Caldwell had nine County players on the roster as his team went 29-11 in 2014.
“One of the things I really liked at Altoona was getting players, especially from this area maybe, who weren’t necessarily the stars of their team and have them come there and shine,” he said. “I enjoyed giving them that chance. Now I get to work with them on the other end.”
Even with the success, Caldwell began thinking about leaving the program for personal reasons.
“I discussed it with some of the administration at the end of last season that there were some things coming up and that there was a pretty good chance I was going to step down before the season began,” he said. “I initially thought I would stay through the fall and get them through the tryout process, but things just changed with my family situation and I felt I had to go at that time.”
Caldwell said he had already left the school when he learned that the Bellefonte position was being advertised and decided to apply.
Now he takes over a high school program that is the polar opposite from the one took over in Altoona.
Bellefonte has won District titles in 13 of the last 15 seasons and took home a PIAA crown in 2010.
“It’s a different challenge than I had at Altoona,” he said. “Obviously at Altoona, I was going into a program that had no expectations. One the things I really like about Bellefonte is the tradition of winning. When you walk in the gym and look at the banners, they’ve won a lot of titles. I certainly want to continue that.”
He knows that he’ll be facing stiff competition in the Mountain League. Bald Eagle Area was a runner-up and Philipsburg-Osceola advanced to the semifinals on the PIAA Class AA Tournament last season.
He’s seen that type of competition before previously from the dugout at O’Leary Field.
“I was really lucky when I was an assistant coach at Bellefonte,” he said. “I was able to able to sit back, watch and learn a lot from coaches like John Wetzler, Jim Gonder, Dave Breon and Donny Lucas. I’m looking forward to learning more.”
He’ll have Wetzler, who had a career 137-33 record, by his side. Wetzler was approved Tuesday as an assistant coach along with former Bellefonte player Heather Cassidy.
Caldwell, who retired from the Rockview State Police Barracks a little more than eighth years ago, expects to stay busy on and off the field. He has a one-year-old granddaughter and Laura, who served as his pitching coach at Penn State Altoona, is expecting in January.
“We need to get the junior varsity program up and running again,” he said. “And I have to staff and get the two junior high programs going.”
He looks forward to working with the defending District 6 champions.
“I know some of the players,” he said. “The players that I do know, I’m pretty confident they’re going to be strong competitors for us. But, I don’t know all of the players. I’m going to have to learn some new people.”