Joe Francisco and Jerry Kelbley developed a special bond over the years thanks in large part to the game of softball.

The longtime coaches, who frequently meet for breakfast or lunch, maintained high standards in their respective high school softball programs. Francisco coached Westerville North for 25 seasons and Kelbley guided Westerville South for 36 years.

Francisco retired following the 2016 season and Kelbley announced his retirement May 31.

Kelbley, 73, finished with a career record of 636-281 and guided South to 12 OCC titles, 11 district championships, five regional titles and a Division I state runner-up finish in 1994. The Wildcats, who finished 4-20 this past season, also reached the state tournament in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1991.

"No matter what, you knew (Kelbley's) team was going to be prepared as well as they possibly could," Francisco said. "As I told our kids, don't take any inning off. I don't care if we're up five runs in the first inning, don't take any inning off against them because all of a sudden you're going to find yourself behind.

"You pretty much know what Jerry's coaching style is. He might throw you a curveball every once in a while. I've learned a lot watching Jerry teach."

Kelbley, who was named an OCC Coach of the Year 13 times, was inducted into the Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1995 and the OCC Hall of Fame in 2014.

"For these 36 years, coach Kelbley built a great program," said former South athletics director Buck Weaver, who recently was named AD at Olentangy Orange. "Coach Kelbley's career at Westerville South is certainly that of legendary status."

Kelbley said there were several highlights during his career, but he places working with the players at the top of list.

"There isn't just one thing, just the highlight of being able to work with the young ladies," Kelbley said. "I like it when they feel good about themselves. Maybe all it is they made a good play or were part of a team."

Francisco, 73, finished with a career record of 429-237 and led the Warriors to district titles in 1991, 1992 and 1994 and a state tournament berth in 1992. He was inducted into the OHSFSCA Hall of Fame in 1996.

Francisco and Kelbley both are past recipients of the OHSFSCA Sportsmanship, Ethics and Integrity Award.

"When we were starting out, we were just learning and supporting each other. That's how we got together and got to know each other," Kelbley said of his friendship with Francisco. "I respected him for his coaching ability and the success he had and I think it was the same way around. We never had any disagreements or confrontations during our games or any afterwards."

After serving as an assistant coach at DeSales in the late 1980s, Francisco took over the North program in 1990. He stepped down after the 2003 season but returned in 2006.

"Joe had over 400 career wins, OCC titles and competed in the state tournament while at Westerville North," former North athletics director Vicki Saunders said. "He was not only significant to the success at North, but also with Westerville softball. His contributions to the programs in Westerville are far-reaching, not only as a coach, but also as a mentor and friend."

Caitie Kilbane replaced Francisco as coach, guiding the Warriors to a 15-11 record this spring as well as their first district semifinal appearance since 2011. A 2010 North graduate, she played four seasons under Francisco before playing at Kent State. She returned to the North program as an assistant in 2016.

"From being a player for him for four years, he really taught me how to think about the game," Kilbane said. "That was something he drilled into us, the mental aspect. Over the four years, I played three different positions, so learning those and being able to pick those up, it was a much easier transition having him as my coach."

Kilbane said she remained in contact with Francisco throughout this past season, receiving support and guidance.

"I'm incredibly competitive and intense, which I think my players would say, but he's taught me how to be patient and how to push people without pushing them too hard," she said. "Being an assistant for him was a great experience and really helped me make this first year as a head coach a smoother transition."

Francisco said North's program is "in great hands" under Kilbane.

"I love to see the girls have success," Francisco said. "... Caitie will do phenomenal. She is a good one."

Kelbley also had a special bond with his players, including Amanda Crist and her daughter, Kambra. Amanda Crist was a member of the 1994 team that reached the state final, where it lost to Akron Springfield 10-2.

"Coach Kelbley was great," Amanda Crist said. "He was always there for us. He was always in our corner cheering us on. He had a passion for the game and that passion overflowed to us. He was a man of routine and that fit right in with the way I worked things, so it was great."

Kambra Crist played four years under Kelbley before graduating in 2016. She recently completed her freshman season at Northern Kentucky.

"He's a great coach," Kambra Crist said of Kelbley. "He loves the game. He would make anybody love the game. He's a reason why I stuck with softball and took it as far as I have, because he makes sure you never lost the love for the game."

fdirenna@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekFrank