WEST MIDDLESEX – Two games from the PIAA pinnacle, there’s no way Jerry Novosel is going to jeopardize the West Middlesex High baseball team.
“I went to only one game, and they lost (Wilmington). You know how superstitious athletes are, so I haven’t gone to a game since. I’ll listen to it on the radio,” related Novosel.
District 10 champion West Middlesex (22-1) meets District 6 titlist Bishop McCort (17-7) today at 4 p.m. at West Mifflin in a Class 1A statewide Final Four game. The winner will compete for the commonwealth crown.
After serving as Middlesex mentor for 31 seasons (418-237), Novosel knows of what he speaks. He took the 1992 team to what was then the western regional championship game, ultimately knocked off at Neshannock. The Big Reds’ rival back then was Kennedy (Christian) Catholic in what was then the Mercer County League.
That West Middlesex team, led by R.J Bowers and Todd Anthony, will be inducted this fall into the school’s Hall of Fame.
What’s striking is that legendary talent like Mercer County Hall-of-Famer Rick Ladjevich, as well as players like Steve Bowers and Novosel’s son, Walter, were not part of that team. Ladjevich graduated in 1990; the others came along later.
“We just found ways to win,” Novosel recalled. “Just a well-balanced team. Real strong defense, and our pitching was strong. But we just scraped out runs. We weren’t a big-hitting team, just tried to put the ball in play and scraped for runs. We felt if (the opponent) doesn’t score, we play good defense, and we’d find a way to score.”
The 2019 edition of the Big Reds rip the ball, basically one through nine in the batting order. In the Big Reds’ recent 9-3 rout of California West Middlesex mustered 15 hits. Jake Bowen, Ricky Ladjevich, Kaz Hoffman, Chase Tomko, Logan Hurley, Zach Long, Garrett Donaldson, Dom Stinedurf, Alex Kachulis consistently contribute for Coach Kevin Hoffman.
“I’m glad they’re doing a great job. They’re a super team. They have a good shot at taking it the distance,” Novosel said regarding the Big Reds. “They’ve got some good pitching (Hurley, Bowen, Donaldson), and they hit the ball – they’re just good hitters. They’re senior loaded, so they have some maturity there, and they’ve been playing together a long time.
“They have everything in their favor, and I wish them all the luck,” added Novosel, who taught health and physical education at West Middlesex Area High School for 36 years.
“Paid to play games,” he said with a chuckle.
He also was a great role-model. A previous Herald story chronicled his daily routine: jog 3 miles from his home to the school, do some weight-training, then after cleaning up, begin a day of teaching and coaching.
Though he did not start the program, per se, Novosel knew enough to build it, forming a junior varsity or feeder program, which served as the impetus for numerous other Mercer County programs to do likewise.
He also later initiated a junior high program, which enabled younger players to become acquainted with the program that much sooner. And his program was able to “blend together” with the local Little League insofar as producing players.
“Athletes are athletes,” he mused.
The hallmark of Novosel-coached clubs was preventing runs, or more succinctly, not permitting runs.
“We had some teams that were better hitting, but I’d have to say the biggest thing in my coaching was defense – you’ve gotta play defense. Throw the ball, catch the ball, then good things’ll happen if you put your bat on the ball and make contact,” Novosel related. “It was just basic fundamentals. A lot of teams don’t do the basics, but we emphasized the fundamentals.
“That (‘92 team) was a good team. We had smart kids, good students, and they understood the game – why we were doing things. It just all fit together,” Novosel said, emphasizing, “But every year was a new year. It was not for myself; it was for the kids.”
There is a direct correlation from Novosel to this year’s edition, as Kevin Hoffman played for Novosel in the early 1980’s. Also, Kevin’s son Kolten, who now assists his father.
“He was a good player,” praised Novosel regarding Kevin. “He played my first couple years of coaching. I think I learned more from the players than they learned from me. But I watched every video, talked to every coach ... You can’t re-invent the game, but just try to see all that’s out there. But Kevin was a real good player. ... I’d like to think some of that carried on.”
Today, Novosel will not be in attendance; rather, in spirit.
“I’m really excited for them, but I’ll be listening on the radio. I’d really like to go, but you know how superstitious everybody is. If I go and they’d lose, I’d be thinking, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have gone.’ But I wish ‘em luck.”