By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD – If it was a question of whether New Covenant Academy made the right decision when it hired John Hartley to build its baseball program from scratch, it may have been answered when players took the field for the first practice in team history.
The Warriors honored the man they call “Poppa Hart” in a ceremony on the field during Thursday’s match against Fair Play, in memory of the coach who took a team that did not even have a home field in 2015 and led them to the state championship match. a year later.
Hartley withdrew from New Covenant after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season, ending his time with a 92-36 record that included two district championships.
But when he addressed the audience on Thursday – surrounded by his family on the field and with several members of his introductory team in the crowd – he thought back to what he saw on the day of the team’s first practice.
“Right in front of us in midfield was a halo,” Hartley recalled.
For a man who studied to be a pastor before finding his calling in coaching, the sight was a symbolic beginning of one of the most rewarding experiences of a decorated 40-year career.
After spending 22 years at Willard, three seasons at the College of the Ozarks and another eight years coaching travel baseball, Hartley looked for a new opportunity when he saw New Covenant seek a coach to coach the school’s first baseball team.
He jumped at the chance – an added bonus was that he got to teach the middle school Bible – and began the monumental task of compiling a list and establishing a culture.
The team unveiled a sound clip from one of Hartley’s early information meetings and played it during Thursday’s ceremony. In it, he told the story of how he fell in love with baseball at an early age – his mother joked that he was born with a hood, as he would never be seen without it – and promised to share his love of the game with everyone who signed up .
His dangerous behavior became an instant hit with the Warriors.
“He’s not just our coach,” said senior Nathan Good. “He’s our guy. He’s like a grandfather. He is always there for you. To give him this recognition, he deserves it more. ”
The team announced Thursday that the third base home excavation will now be known as “Poppa Hart’s Dugout” and gave him the game that was used to throw the first course in program history, encapsulated in a structure honoring him “for the groundbreaking NCA baseball program and instill in your players a love for God, each other and the game. ”
That course was thrown on March 31, 2015, almost six years the day before Thursday’s ceremony, and was a relic of a year when New Covenant played directions just as crews built a ballpark on land between the school and the Kansas Expressway.
It’s a reminder of where the program was when Hartley started and where it is now.
“This was more or less a landfill,” Hartley said. “If you had driven down this little track the first year, it would have been awful. But this is where we should put this. The first year we all played away games and we borrowed Central’s field, which was NIchols Park, for a senior night. ”
What is now known as the Federal Protection Field was completed for the 2016 season, and quickly emerged as one of the crown jewels of baseball stadiums in Missouri high school.
“You see the result here,” Hartley said. “Fortunately, they had spent seven years preparing for this in prayer and in money, and now you see prayer and money, and now you see the best high school in Springfield. A lot of it is because of their preparations. ”
Plans for the field may have been in place before Hartley arrived, but what is happening on the pitch can be attributed to him directly. Even though he passed away, his three loves – Love God, love the game and love your teammates – are still the heart of the program’s identity.
“If it were not for Poppa, there are many boys who come from New Covenant who do not get the opportunity to play baseball,” said Good. “Many boys learn what the sport is, and learn to love the sport as he loved it. Just the example of how he put day in and day out how to play the sport and how to have fun. It’s something I look up to and admire. ”
Hartley’s period at New Covenant came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. He originally planned to retire after the 2021 season, and expressed a desire to travel with the current senior class, but losing the season made him reconsider the plan.
“I just thought it was probably time,” Hartley said.
He gave the kidneys to Chris Long, a longtime friend and colleague who has the Warriors to a 4-1 start that includes a 13-2, four-inning victory over the Hornets in Thursday’s matinee.
“He has been so influential for more than 40 years, and he has been a personal mentor to me as a person, as a Christian, as a coach, and as a leader,” Long said. “Being able to come out here and play a game like that on a day we honor him is great.”
All Hartley knew about the day was that he needed to keep April 1 open because the team had something planned for him. He said the award was a complete surprise – and not just that he received them. He did not know you could even have a dugout name.
“I’ve never heard of it before,” Hartley said. I’ve heard of fields, parks and different things named after (people), but I’ve never heard of a dugout. So it’s a little new. I’m humble and obviously I appreciate it, but the only way that matters at all is about the kids who are in that excavation. Hopefully people will continue well past me to keep the tradition we have created alive, and that’s all that really matters to me. ”
The early returns indicate that there is a good chance that it will happen.
“He definitely put the culture here,” said senior Dillon Dougherty. “Everything he has done has moved to us. We have kept his program and his mentality. Just had a new coach who did the same things. ”
Long, the new coach, offered Hartley another gift at Thursday’s match, but he declined.
“I told him if he wanted to train third base, he could have it – and I meant it too,” Long said. “He wants out here, he can have it.” Obviously, he started this program, and he really laid the foundation for this. He has been several times this spring just because he loves the children, and he is still interested and invested in their future and still here to help them. He is welcome to be there anytime we can have him nearby. ”