A love for sports and helping kids has earned a local coach state recognition.
Coach Joe Gay has been named the Missouri Parks and Recreation Coach of the Year, an honor Sedalia Parks and Recreation Director Amy Epple said is long overdue.
Gay said he coaches just about anything Parks and Rec needs, and over the years has coached every sport in Sedalia. He got his start at age 14 when he volunteered to coach his younger brother’s soccer team and has been coaching ever since, with the exception of his three years in the military.
“I wanted to give back to the community,” Gay said. “At the time, kids on the East end of Sedalia and North side of Sedalia didn’t get the opportunity to do different sports because of finances and stuff like that, so I started volunteering my time to do it.”
Gay has helped the Sedalia youth sports community in a number of ways, from coaching and serving as an umpire, to starting an AAU team after saving up money from his umpire job.
“I did it in California for my kids and around here they didn’t have it,” Gay recalled. “I wanted to help the East and North sides, and anyone who wanted to play but didn’t have the financial means to do it.”
He has also helped train new Sedalia Parks and Rec umpires, something not included in his job description, Epple said, but rather something he wanted to do.
Through his numerous decades as a coach, he said a few teams stand out, such as the Lady Vols team in the 1990s that reached the national level. Another team was a boys team, which included his youngest son, that played in five national tournaments.
“We got picked to go to Florida and that trip was paid for by a team out of Florida because we was the only team to qualify for the nationals that didn’t have a major sponsor,” he said. “We raised our money by cooking fried chicken dinners, garage sales, whatever we could do so we could go. That was one of the best group of guys I’ve ever coached.
“Those kids got along. … They really meshed together, just like they’d been together for years and we had only been together for a year and a half.”
Gay’s sports roots go beyond coaching. He played numerous sports as a kid and was on the first State Fair Community College soccer team.
As he began coaching other sports, he used his own athletic experience plus plenty of research to help his players.
“I wanted to teach the fundamentals,” he said. “I tell them that they don’t have to be gifted — as long as they have the fundamentals, they can play the game.”
This season, Gay is coaching roughly 100 kids in Biddy Basketball each week, teaching 3- and 4-year-olds how to dribble, pass and shoot, among other skills. Wednesday night, he was bouncing from court to court as he encouraged the players to shoot the ball when they had the chance and offering reminders to dribble down the court, a reminder not always heard by the eager children. He offered a helping hand when looks of confusion appeared, and even made sure tears were replaced with smiles.
“Come on now, I need you to come show me you can shoot a basket,” Gay told 4-year-old Cooper Hines who hid behind his mom on the sidelines after something went wrong. After some encouragement, Gay and Hines ran down the court together to rejoin the game.
“I think (Coach Joe) is great with the kids,” said Hines’ mom, Jessica Hines. “He’s very hands-on and has a great attitude.”
Epple nominated Gay for the award and a Missouri Parks and Recreation committee selects each year’s winner. When Epple told Gay in January he had won, he was “shocked” but remains his humble self when talking about the award.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without Amy and the staff, they help me out with anything I need,” he said. “... I am humbled that people do appreciate what I do.”
Epple said parents know their kids are in good hands when they find out Gay is the coach for their team.
“I know how much Joe deserves to be recognized for all he’s done for the community and the players,” Epple said. “If you go out there and watch him in action, the kids are excited, the parents are excited. Joe’s a little guy but man he’s got the loudest voice. And he’s just so excited. And that’s the thing, even the little tiny kids that are 2 and 3, it’s not about them being a Major League Baseball player, he’s just out there playing with them. He’s treating them just like a Major League player that made it.
“I appreciate his drive and his passion to make this community a better place.”