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Spenilla’s sense of purpose key to his success

Kevin Mays • Apr 14, 2020 at 1:00 PM

WISE — “Opportunity” is a crucial word in Ray Spenilla’s life.

Taking advantage of those opportunities, particularly to help someone else, is what he’s tried to do with his life.

Spenilla, a member of the Eastern Kentucky and Virginia-Wise halls of fame, said there have been plenty of people along his path to success who deserve his thanks.

“There were teachers, coaches, people in the church that have always been instrumental in my life. They afforded me opportunities that, given the dynamic of my situations, I would not have had without them,” Spenilla said. “Shame on me if I don’t try to extend myself and try to help others.”

The 68-year-old Spenilla — who after retiring as Virginia-Wise’s athletic director has volunteered for the past decade as a patient advocate at the Southwest Virginia Regional Cancer Center in Norton — has spent his life trying to help others in need.

“There’s three things that I try to live my life by: thankfulness, enthusiasm and persistence,” Spenilla said. “You have to have a sense of purpose.”

ROUGH START

Spenilla learned early that life isn’t always fair.

He had a rough childhood but tried to make the best of things in school. He did so with the help of teachers and coaches who mentored him in school, in sports and in life.

Sports was an outlet, and Spenilla played high school football, basketball and baseball at Coeburn.

Baseball by far was his best sport, he said.

“I was a good role player in basketball and football,” he said. “I was short and round in my early years, but I could hit a baseball.”

Spenilla was a good baseball player and thought about playing at the collegiate level. But he wasn’t even sure he was going to college. He wasn’t sure he could afford it.

His high school counselor, Marion Quesenberry, helped him put together the paperwork he needed to apply for scholarships and financial aid.

ON TO COLLEGE

He was accepted at Eastern Kentucky, but baseball was not in the picture.

At least not in the first year.

“I had too much work to do and had to make sure I kept my grades up to stay in school,” he said.

His second year at EKU, Spenilla decided his grades were good enough and he had enough free time to try out as a walk-on.

Colonels coach Jack Hissom kept three walk-ons for the 1972 squad, and Spenilla was one of them.

“He told me he kept me because I hustled,” Spenilla recalled.

Spenilla did not see a lot playing time as a redshirt freshman, but he did make some initial noise with his bat.

“The first time up, I hit a home run. Then I went a year and a half before I hit another one,” he said.

Spenilla was the 22nd man on the 22-man traveling team his freshman year.

“We had a good team that year. We finished something like 30-9 and were ranked around the top 25. We played Kentucky, Louisville, Tennessee, Ohio State, serious teams,” he said.

“When I got my home run, I was a pinch hitter and we were playing in Carrollton, Georgia, and I had an old Jackie Robinson bat,” Spenilla said. “The first pitch, the ball was in the mitt before I could react. I just said ‘Lord don’t let me make a fool of myself up here.’ ”

On the third pitch, Spenilla smacked the ball over the center field fence, 400 feet away.

He batted .236 and .257 in his first two seasons, but his junior year he posted a .322 batting average with a school-record 34 RBIs. He led the team in hits, home runs and triples.

His senior year, Spenilla batted .408.

ON TO COACHING

After graduating in 1975 with a double major, Spenilla stayed at EKU as a hitting instructor. That year the Colonels hit .340 as a team, which ranked fourth in the nation.

“That was the only year I worked as an assistant coach,” Spenilla said.

He spent one year as the baseball coach at Lynch High School in Kentucky, where he led the team to its first conference championship in 13 years.

Spenilla then moved closer to home and became Castlewood’s baseball coach. In seven years, he led the Blue Devils to seven consecutive Hogoheegee District championships, two Region C titles and a state runner-up finish.

Spenilla left Castlewood for the college ranks in July 1985, taking over at Clinch Valley College, now known as Virginia-Wise.

He had no assistant coaches and no scholarships. He also had almost no players.

“The first year we had to recruit out of the cafeteria,” Spenilla said. “We had to get players wherever we could. We went to the cafeteria and asked kids to play. We got two basketball players to come out and play.

“We had 13 players on the team and we won 13 games, which was a school record at the time.”

The record-breaking season started with a season-opening home win over Cumberland, which was ranked in the NAIA top 25.

“We managed to beat them in the first game 11-8. And then they came back the next day and reality set in,” Spenilla said.

From 1986-96 Spenilla’s teams registered over 200 wins and had five consecutive winning seasons. He led the Cavaliers to the NAIA District 32 championship in 1989 and 1990, which is still the only time in school history a men’s team has won back-to-back championships.

Spenilla’s teams also made the postseason in 1992, ’93 and ’94.

In 1996, he became associate athletic director at UVA Wise and then athletic director in 2001.

From 2001-09, under Spenilla’s leadership, the school saw the reconstruction of Burchell Stallard Field (baseball), the construction of Cavalier Field (softball) and massive updates to Carl Smith Stadium (football). The Cavaliers also won 14 athletic titles and made 29 postseason appearances with Spenilla at the helm.

One of his proudest achievements, however, didn’t come on the athletic field.

The UVA Wise athletics department received the Presidential National Points of Light award in 2003, which honors groups that have helped their communities through volunteerism.

“YOU CAN CHANGE MOMENTS”

Since his retirement from UVA Wise, Spenilla has spent the past decade as a patient advocate at the cancer center in Norton.

“It’s a support role. I greet guests and just try to talk to families and be there to help individuals with their needs,” he said.

Spenilla and his wife, Jennifer, bake items for patients and their families.

“Some of the folks have great support systems from their families, but not all of them do. Some of them struggle with nutrition, a lack of family members or transportation. I just try to do whatever needs to be done to help them,” Spenilla said.

While he’s always quick to jump in and offer his help, Spenilla said the cancer center’s patients and their families are the heroes.

“I see heroes every day at the cancer center,” he said. “I see more courage in a month than a lot of people see in a lifetime.

“Maybe you can’t change the outcome, but you can change moments.”

The retired coach also offers free hitting instruction for baseball and softball players and makes appearances as a motivational speaker.

“I just try to do what I can to help people,” Spenilla said.

Why does he do so much? He’s paying forward the compassion and generosity he received so many times when he was younger.

“What’s the passage in the Bible say about doing what you do for the least of these? That’s something I’ve learned.

“I think there’s three things we’re going to be looked at when this life journey comes to an end: Which side of the fence you are on with the creator; how do you use the 24 hours you’re given each day; (and) what you try to do for someone that can’t do anything for you.”

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