Mired in the midst of a 1-13 varsity baseball season, a once great legacy of Covington baseball now seems light years away. But first year coach Andy Johnson is committed, and content, to do whatever it takes…and however long it takes…to rebuild.
Covington – There’s much expectation and anticipation amongst area high school baseball this weekend. The tournament draw is on Sunday and the yearly posturing of seeds and draws and byes will once again take center stage.
But at Covington High School there is no such anticipation. Mired in the midst of a 1-13 season so far, first-year coach Andy Johnson and his staff have very little to posture with, or about. About all they can anticipate is being someone’s first-round tune-up for bigger and better things down the line. It’s almost inevitable they’ll play the #1 seed in their sectional, whomever that turns out to be. Likely, one-and-done is their fate.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Covington, over the years, has had a rich tradition of good baseball and good baseball players – from the Whitman brothers, Paul and Jack, in the early 70s, to more recent standouts like Gene Studebaker and Ross Mohler since 2005. Under long-time coach Mitch Hirsch the Buccaneers were a frequent tournament threat in Division IV…as recent as four years ago a district champion. 15-win seasons were nearly habitual in the baseball competitive Cross County Conference.
But baseball success at Covington went south, and that in a hurry. A traditional football power amongst area Division VI and VII schools, in recent years some say that football has become so dominant in its impact on participation interest in the community that its drawn from the interest in other sports – like baseball.
Hirsch stepped down as coach after last year’s disappointing season, prompting questions as to who could, and would, step in to take the reins. Who would have the patience, the commitment, and the vision to regain and maintain interest in baseball at Covington? The answer was as close as the guy standing next to Mitch Hirsch for the past nine years.
Andy Johnson had been an assistant for Hirsch since coming home from Bowling Green University in 2009. Prior to college, he played for Hirsch at Covington, graduating in 2005.
“Mitch asked me to come back and coach the Acme team here after my freshman year in college,” said Johnson recently. “And from that point I knew…that I wanted to be a high school baseball coach.”
As it frequently works out this way, good coaches weren’t necessarily successful players, and vice-versa. Such was the case with Andy Johnson.
“I was the kind of player that you could put in the game to get a bunt down, or pinch run…something like that,” he says with a bit of self-deprecation. “I wasn’t a great player. I was more of an Allen Mack type when he played basketball for Bob Huelsman. He actually didn’t play a lot, but he absorbed all the could about the game and turned out to be a tremendous basketball coach. That’s what I’m hoping to do.”
He learned his baseball at home, in the backyard, from his dad, Scott, who passed away prematurely more than a decade ago.
“We spent a lot of time together, just through baseball,” says Johnson. “Dad played in high school, so naturally I followed in his footsteps. And after he was gone the first thing I realized was how much it meant to me. It’s a shame, but it took him dying to make me realize how much I missed baseball.”
The honeymoon as a head coach has been short, and not so sweet. Of the 13 losses they’ve endured this year 10 have been of the run-rule variety – behind by 10 runs or more after five innings. It’s baseball’s version of the “the mercy rule”.
“It’s not unexpected,” says Johnson, who starts as many as six freshmen and sophomores. There are only two seniors on the Covington roster. “We’re young, we’re really inexperienced, and our kids just haven’t played enough baseball to be competitive at this level.”
Their only win thus far came at the expense of CCC rival Ansonia, almost a month ago, which begs the question as to why baseball has fallen so far, so fast, for the Buccaneers?
“It’s a matter of kids not playing,” says Johnson, matter-of-factly. “It’s a by-product of youth baseball and Little League, but I also believe that it’s a matter of kids not getting the kind of one-on-one instruction at home anymore, the way I did from my dad growing up. I don’t think dads and boys play much baseball anymore. So the kids I have this year have never had the kind of competitive challenge that they’re getting at the varsity level, and we’ve played some good teams.”
The irony in all of this is…that Johnson doesn’t have much more experience coaching than the kids have playing. They’re all learning together, but Johnson credits his experience with Mitch Hirsch, who was highly respected among his coaching peers, as being valuable training time.
“What I learned most from Mitch was to be patient,” says Johnson. “Realizing that you have to work with kids, you have to develop their skills, and you know that it’s not going to be perfect right away. But it you work at it and the kids commit you can turn a mediocre player into someone you can really lean on. I learned that…and that you have to adjust to your talent. There were years when Mitch had big hitters and they scored a lot of runs. There were years when they didn’t have big hitters, and they relied on ‘small ball’, pitching and defense. You have to adapt to the kind of players you have and Mitch taught me that you have to be flexible.”
His patience and flexibility are going to be tested, as Friday evening Johnson and his young Buccaneers endured another run-rule verdict, 14-0 at the hands of Division II Greenville. Johnson sent two freshmen to the mound and watched as they struggled to throw strikes; and he also watched as his defense misplayed four fly balls that contributed to a handful of unearned runs amongst the 14. So the inevitable question…how long will it take?
“I hope three years,” he said with a smile. “Look, I have opposing coaches and umpires tell me every day that we have talent. All we need to do is play. So far this year we’ve committed 51 errors and we’ve walked 110 hitters. And only 98 of the 185 runs we’ve given up have been earned.
“This summer I’d like to get our Acme program back and running. It’s been nine years since there was Acme baseball in Covington, and that’s a shame. But I think with Mitch, Jeremy Yingst and me working together we can get our youth program coordinated with instruction to where it begins to pay dividends with high school baseball very soon.”
He’s constantly teaching during games, encouraging, and painting the positive picture of what baseball at Covington can be in the future.
“We took the kids to Ohio State last Sunday to let them see the Buckeyes play Indiana…and what baseball can look like when it’s done right,” he says. “But more, I wanted the kids to see that a kid from the Cross County Conference, like Conner Pohl (Arcanum), can go to Ohio State, play baseball, and be successful. I wanted them to see that it takes a lot of work, but there is a reward for that kind of commitment and work. I know they enjoyed the experience, and I think that it made an impression.”
In the meantime he keeps working at it, while maintaining his day job as a social studies teacher in the Piqua system. Patience and developing positive attitudes are in his blood.
Can he compete with football to turn the fortunes of baseball at Covington back to what they used to be?
“Well, what I want kids to understand is that it’s good to play multiple sports. It’s fun,” he concludes. “But I also want them to know that you can be a mediocre football player in the fall, but if you work at it you can be an outstanding baseball player in the spring.”
Be flexible, and adapt. It’s what he’s learned from watching and absorbing. Andy Johnson, like Horatio Alger, has a plan…to rebuild Covington baseball.