Jefferson-Morgan starts fast, rockets to first playoff win in 16 years

Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Jefferson-Morgan coach John Curtis, right, has had 358 victories to celebrate in his time with the Rockets.

The championships and the victories are memorable and pleasing.

But they are not the essence of John Curtis’ lengthy and successful baseball coaching career at Jefferson-Morgan High School.

Teaching the game he loves is what sustains Curtis’ enthusiasm and passion. He is old school – fundamentals, basics and attention to details are the cornerstones of his program.

“Coaching baseball is not something John just does or enjoys,” said Dave Bates, who played for Curtis at Jefferson-Morgan and later coached against him when Bates was the coach at Carmichaels. “Being a baseball coach is who John is. It’s in his fabric and his core.

“There are not a lot of guys like John in the world. He is truly the game and has been for generations, not just one or two, in some cases three and maybe four.”

Curtis is in his 36th season as the Rockets’ baseball coach and in his 50th year as a baseball coach and clinician.

His high-school career started in 1981. He has been Jefferson-Morgan’s coach all but three years since. He took at three-year hiatus to coach at Penn State Fayette from 2004-2006 but returned to Jefferson-Morgan in 2007.

The Carmichaels (1970) and Penn State University graduate (1975) has also coached golf at Jeff-Morgan since 1990. He had three players qualify for the PIAA Championships, won section titles in 1995, 2006 and 2009 and guided the Rockets to more than 200 match victories.

But baseball is where Curtis forged his reputation. He started coaching in the youth leagues and later coached American Legion ball.

He has 358 victories in high school. Jefferson-Morgan won four section championships in his tenure (1985, 1986, 1988 and 2017).

The Rockets finished third in the WPIAL in 1986 and qualified for the PIAA playoffs, finishing fifth in the state.

Jefferson-Morgan was fourth in the WPIAL in 1995, 2001 and 2017. The Rockets have played in 27 postseason games in his career.

“I love the sports and the kids,” Curtis said. “I enjoy working with kids and baseball has been a love of mine since I was 7-years-old. I had a great high school coach (Dominick Christy) and he just enhanced my love of the game.

“I do one-year contracts. As long as I still enjoy it and can throw 200 to 300 batting practice pitches a day, I’ll keep doing it. If I didn’t feel I could do this physically, I would stop.”

Scot Moore, athletic director at Jefferson-Morgan, used to work with Curtis for Parks and Recreation in Waynesburg before Curtis landed a teaching job at Jefferson-Morgan.

Moore said Curtis’ approach to baseball and working with kids has always been admirable and exemplary.

“He is meticulous in what he does,” Moore said. “John appreciates the game of baseball and every little detail and aspect of it. And he teaches every little detail and aspect of it.

“He’s always wanted to teach the game to young kids. He’s a little, no, a lot, old school that way, and that is a positive thing. John is all about the fundamentals of the game. This year has not been one of our strongest starts to a season, but he is out there every day teaching and working, hitting ground balls and fly balls,

“He is certainly passionate about the game,” Moore continued. “He loves the game and lives to teach the game.”

Curtis retired as a teacher in 2012. He taught physical education. He also served as Jefferson-Morgan’s athletic director for 10 years.

While the approach and philosophy remain intact, Curtis admits, as the student population and roster size at Jefferson-Morgan shrinks, he has had to adjust the preseason routine a bit.

“The world is different,” Curtis said. “The kids are still accountable to know what’s the right way to play the game and to work hard at practice. But they are playing other sports and have other interests.

“As a coach, I have been blessed with good kids and good athletes. Our baseball team is a small team from our community. We have had years where we have been very good, and it has brought the community together. That is fun.”

Perhaps Curtis’ best team at Jefferson-Morgan was in 1986.

The Rockets defeated Charleroi, Beaver Falls and Riverside before losing to Fort Cherry, 5-4. Jefferson-Morgan rebounded to defeat Portage in the first round of the PIAA Championships before losing to Ford City, 3-2.

It was quite a ride.

“That was my best team,” Curtis said. “It was a great year for us, we had a lot of good players and a lot of good pitching. We could hit, we had power and we were fast.

“Our boys were like men. We had a great team and played against some great teams.”

Bates said Curtis’ ability to relate to players and to keep in contact with them as the years have passed make him a special friend to some, a mentor to others and an inspiration to those who maintain friendships with him or continue to keep in touch with the program.

“John’s one of those guys who made you feel special as a player,” Bates said. “Maybe I’m different because we are such good friends today. But through my college years and then being adversaries as opposing coaches, we have remained friends and only gotten closer. We’re still involved in baseball together.

“We’ve had some reunions with other players and coaches and you always feel a special part of the program with John.

“I think the first words he ever spoke to me was early in my sophomore year. He stopped me and said: ‘Hey, Bates. Get that first baseman’s mitt oiled up. You’re going to need it. I knew then he had at least been thinking about me.’ ”

Bates also recalls that Curtis was reluctant to allow him to pitch at Jefferson-Morgan. Finally, Curtis gave Bates a chance during his senior season in a game against Beth-Center. As Bates recalls, he worked five or six innings before being lifted in favor of Brian Virgin, who ended up being credited with the win.

“I’ve never forgiven Curtis for that,” Bates laughed. “Ironically, I pitched a lot in college and maybe by my sophomore or junior year I could break a pane of glass.”

Moore points to Curtis’ longevity and complete understanding of the game as to the reasons he finds success with his players beyond wins and losses.

“Kids see and understand that he knows the game,” Moore said. “I think his ability to sustain success in the program and to produce good baseball players goes back to his love for the game and ability to teach it.

“Two years ago, we shared the section championship and I remember there was a lot of questions about how to put that team all together. John is so good at figuring out where to position his players and what positions to put them in so they can find success individually and as a group. That comes with experience. Coaching ball, that’s John Curtis, that is his forte. People respect what he has done and what he does.”

Curtis resides in Dry Tavern with his wife, the former Cindy Headlee. The two have adult sons, Tom and A.J., who live in Florida and North Carolina, respectively.

His father, John, who passed away in 1986, was quite influential, and his mother, Virginia, 93, remains his biggest fan – and sometimes critic.

“She comes to the games and asks me sometimes if I left the pitcher in a little too long,” Curtis chuckled. “She’s always been there for me.”

Curtis has always been there for Jefferson-Morgan baseball.

“My high school coach was a tactician and was organized,” Curtis said. “He hit so many grounders and we did those 30-yard sprints. When he was satisfied is when we left.

“I stress to these boys we have to make plays, no matter how cold it is or what obstacles you are facing. We’re a little smaller now as a district and a program and the competition for spots is not what it was. But that’s not an excuse. We’re pretty much doing what we’ve always done. We run as much as we can, move runners over, take the extra base and try to play good defense. It’s always a matter of execution.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column for the Observer-Reporter on local sports history.

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