I was eight years old; on my birthday, my parents had burned a CD that had my name introduced into the Atlanta Braves lineup. At 11 years old, we had just won the USSSA 9u World Series. At 14 years old, I was a teenager enjoying life. At 17 years old, I graduated with seven 4A all-state players on the same baseball team. At 19 years old, my obsession became the game.
A journey indeed, “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” -Jim Bouton. Throughout this ten-year coaching journey, I will hope to unravel the why behind coaching, share some stories, and talk about the ups and downs that come with it. Coaching has vastly impacted the person I am today, and in sharing some insight, I hope it will help you on your journey.
Where to begin? We will skip past the youth memories and high school memories and cut to the chase.
2013- “The Call"
At 18 years old, fresh out of high school and into my first year of college, I received a call from Bret Hoyer (IHSBA Hall of Fame Coach, ABCA Big Stage Speaker, and one of the winningest coaches). He asked, “Would you like to be an assistant at the sophomore level for us?” Coaching was never something I even considered to be honest. From this day forward, it would become a part of my identity.
I was under a former Kennedy grad, Matt Winter, a coach who has not received the recognition he deserves. Shadowing under Hoyer all of these years, the guy can flat-out coach. He should be a head coach somewhere and or a top college assistant. You will notice a trend in how fortunate I was; to be around some of the best.
2015- Herkelman Field
I received another call from Coach Hoyer after my first season at the sophomore level. This time he asks me to join the varsity staff. Wow! That was my only thought process. For 15+ years, Kennedy had been the best of the best, and at such a young age, to have someone of that magnitude believe in you says a lot. I would be replacing one of my mentors, Jake Waddle, a stud in his own right, and joining the likes of greats like Bill Herkelman and Jake Nauman.
Was I ready for this? Probably not. I was a year or two older than some of my players and just learning how to communicate. Knowing this, Hoyer handed me the keys. He said, "You have the offense and call pitches." Ironically, calling pitches was the easiest part; we had two of the best high school arms the state has ever seen in my brother, Sammy Lizarraga and Zach Daniels. Offensively, I was still learning.
This year and group will always share a special place in my coaching career and heart. We had just won our sub-state final against Cedar Falls on Wednesday, and we were headed to Des Moines. We celebrated like usual, and Coach Herkelman sat on a cooler and told his stories. That Friday morning, news came around that Coach Herkelman had passed away after suffering a stroke. A legend of Kennedy baseball since the doors opened in 1968. To this day, this will be one of the most challenging experiences I have had to manage in my coaching career.
Every morning, I would set up the field while our players lifted. Coach Herkelman, in his late 70s, would be out already, moving screens and scooping up water by hand off the field. He would share stories, and I would listen. He had a standard of excellence for being fundamentally sound during practice. He harped on doing things the right way and playing the game in the right- manner. I learned and carried all of this on from Herk. To this day, guys who have played for me know that I will be there before and after them to clean up, and we will practice and play the right way.
In the opening round of the Class 4A baseball state tournament, we faced Davenport North. Our hearts were heavy; it was an emotional week for us all. We squeaked a 3-2 win. While my brother struck out 14 hitters and touched 94 mph multiple times. There was a presence with us in the dugout. Herk was watching from above. We did not end up winning state that year, nor did we my next few seasons at Kennedy.
Here is what I will remember and take with me the most from that 2015 campaign. Bill Herkelman had a visitation from 4-7 pm, and the line was full out the door at 9:00 pm.
2016- Swing Changes
I do not want to spend too much time here because I have written about my swing before. However, I believe my final year of college was a turning point for me, diving headfirst into my career. To put it simply: I was a shitty hitter, with a career average of .260 in my first three seasons. In my final season, .330 avg. with 20+ extra-base hits. I still was not that good; however, what I learned about myself and the time spent is unmatched.
I became my own coach and a student of the game. I hired a personal trainer, while still performing school workouts. I used Twitter, video, and research to change my swing drastically. I still connected with Desi Druschel (NY Yankees), and we discussed areas to improve. Then I went to work every single day for hours. I am telling you this because I saw the improvements I had made; in turn, I wanted to help others figure it out faster than I did.
My passion for the swing, hitting, and MLB baseball took off. Obsessed is an understatement.
2017- Staying Home
My love for Kennedy baseball and my alma mater Mount Mercy University provided their opportunities. I was offered to become the first graduate assistant of the Mount Mercy Baseball program by our head coach, Jack Dahm. Dahm was a 20+ year D1 vet, with tons of baseball knowledge and could sell wet newspapers. I knew it was too good to pass up. I gained tons of experience working with hitters, and catchers, fundraising, and working with youth athletes through camps/lessons.
2018- Small Town Love
I received a text from a PG guy telling me there was an opportunity to take over a young-energetic team 40 minutes north of me in Independence, IA. I figured what the heck; I need some head coaching experience, and the facilities are good. Hell, they even had this guy named Patrick Murphy coach here; that is pretty cool.
I remember our first week of practice; we had maybe two seniors and a bunch of 8th Graders and Freshmen. We could not play catch past 90 feet, and the baseball IQ was not there. I thought to myself, “What the hell did I just get myself into?” Luckily, I had learned from Hoyer, that he would say, "You do some of your best coaching when you have your worst teams and to hire people who are smarter than you."
I hired two young bucks; who had never coached (they are still there), and we poured our hearts into the development of that program- to get it moving in the right direction again. Our passion and love for the community are still being felt. Today, I would estimate that 6+ players have signed up to play college baseball.
In 2019, I received a few calls from MLB teams. I interviewed for positions and was not hired. I was not good enough; yet. Right before COVID hit, I was let go; for being too “tough" on the players. I learned many things from that experience:
Ego is the enemy.
To address problems head-on and not wait around.
Communication/relationship building with students on different levels.
Your job is replaceable.
Be so good they can't replace you.
I was stuck. Covid had just hit, and I was dealing with emotional setbacks. My brother had been training at Driveline Baseball for years; he later was hired as a pitching trainer. With nothing left at home, I decided it was time. I packed my stuff and drove across the US to Seattle, Washington, to work for Driveline Baseball, but not in the way you would expect….
I was turned down by MLB teams and I knew that my best shot was to go get a better understanding/learn the data side of the game. Driveline would not hire me. Instead, with nothing left to play for, four years out of college, I would train as a hitter. I would use a Master's Degree in Leadership to pack plyo balls on the side to make a living; while I trained to become a better coach.
During this process, I was hired; by current Texas Rangers MiLB coach Kawika Emsley-Pai. I could not throw away my love for coaching. I joined the staff at a junior college in Centralia, WA. I would train as a hitter in the morning, pack plyo balls, and then sit in traffic for 1.5 hours one way to coach in Centralia. Truthfully, I loved every second of it.
Another situation occurred- our head coach Emsley-Pai was let go a week before the season began. I would now be an associate head coach with Ben Harley, dealing with a team split in half and average talent level. Ultimately, this ended up being one of the best experiences for myself and my coaching career, as I had the autonomy to grow and fail.
2021- Bacon Baby
In the summer, I was finally hired on by Driveline; as a hitting trainer. I was encouraged to take this summer gig down in Macon, Georgia. I would serve as the hitting coach for the Macon Bacon of the CPL. It was my first taste of what MiLB baseball is probably like; it was a great experience. Manager, Kyle MacKinnon, allowed me to run the offense and gain invaluable third-base coaching decisions in pressure-packed situations.
Throughout my time in Macon, I gained a connection in the Atlanta area by the name of, Dan Giordano (former HC at Oglethorpe). Gio threw around names like Sam Briend and Joe Migliaccio, who have either played or worked for him, and I immediately gained interest. I started to commute from Macon to Atlanta three times a week to work with a youth program in North Atlanta.
2022- Ride the Waves
My time spent in Macon had come to an end, and I needed a change of scenery. I took a short stint to help fill a hole with an NAIA program called Ave Maria University, back to my roots of NAIA baseball. The SEC of NAIA, the Sun Conference, the weather, and the players were fantastic. The fit not so much. I traded in my oranges for the peaches and decided this time I would call Atlanta home for the summer. I have done a lot in the last two years!
I sit here reflecting, 10 minutes away from the Braves stadium. What is next for me? Or am I right where I need to be? I have built a deep love for the North Atlanta community. I have a niche of being good with youth athletes. I have the freedom to work for myself as the Director of Hitting for the ATL Lightning and North Youth Organization- one of the largest youth organizations in the metro ATL.
Sometimes, I wonder why I continue to do this with little to no pay, sacrificing relationships, family time, and weekends. Then I remember Herk’s story and all the people who have impacted me: my parents, teammates, and coaches. Every success, experience, and setback I have had are setting me up for something much bigger. When that time comes, I will be ready.
In conclusion, I thought about my visitation one day and the lives I would have impacted. Here's what I want my players to say about me:
-Same person day in and day out.
-Leads by example.
-Someone we can believe in and believes in us.
-Helps us unlock the potential within us.
-Values faith, family, leadership, and hard work.