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August 20, 2014

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the turnaround:

At Western High School, baseball helping young players become young men

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Leila Navidi

The Western High School baseball team warms up during practice at Western High School on Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

Western HS Baseball

The Western High School baseball team warms up during practice at Western High School on Tuesday, March 27, 2012. Launch slideshow »

When Tommy Krier, the Western High School baseball coach, returned home Monday night after a game, his wife greeted him with the usual question: “Did you win?” His team seldom tasted victory.

"Yeah, 3-2,” the soft-spoken Krier nonchalantly responded.

And it took a few moments for it to sink in with his wife how huge that was: Her husband’s rag-tag Warriors had played Sierra Vista that night.

Sierra Vista: the team ranked No. 2 in the local coaches’ poll. Sierra Vista: the team that had beaten Western in their last four games by a combined score of 48-3.

So, for Western — a school in a low-income neighborhood with an enrollment of mostly Hispanic students that struggles in all sports — to knock off a state-championship-contending team from an upscale neighborhood? It was one of the biggest upsets in years on the local prep circuit.

Western has just 16 baseball players, not even enough to field a junior varsity team. Some of them struggle to buy basic equipment, and several had never played baseball until they joined the team in 2010, when Krier became the fourth head coach in four years.

Sierra Vista, on the other hand, had a player selected in the first round of last year’s professional draft. It would be a perennial state power if it weren’t playing in the same league as nationally ranked Bishop Gorman. It has so many players that it fielded three teams in the summer American Legion league. The school even occasionally cracks the national rankings.

But still, the coach brushed off the victory.

“It was just one game,” he told his wife, Megan. “We play again Wednesday.”

Even his players after the game took the victory in stride. They didn’t storm the pitcher’s mound — a celebration to which they were entitled. Instead, they politely got in line and congratulated the Sierra Vista players on a good game.

That made the coach proud.

“I was hoping the kids didn’t storm the field because I didn’t want to show up Sierra Vista,” he said. “It was just one game.”

But by the time the players reached the locker room, the scene was different — “like a bunch of kids at Disneyland or like on Christmas,” senior outfielder Jesus Serrano said.

As word of the upset quickly spread throughout the area’s baseball community, Krier’s cellphone was flooded with messages from other coaches praising his efforts. The following morning, the players were acknowledged during the school’s morning announcements and put up as an example to other students that good things are happening at the school.

At Western, the win was more than an athletic achievement. The school is one of three low-performing high schools in Clark County to receive federal grant money to improve student achievement and, by extension, build morale.

Winning a baseball game they shouldn’t have helps reaffirm everything Principal Neddy Alvarez and her staff have told students since they arrived for the first day of school in August — you are winners, in and out of the classroom.

“It was huge for these kids to be thought of positively,” Krier said. “I know we are in the press for some negative stuff, but that’s not how it is here. There are a lot of good kids with good stories to tell.”

Although the victory is something the team will cherish for years, Krier doesn’t want it to define the season. They have won just three games this spring, but it’s a small improvement over an 8-41 record the past two years combined, and players are showing signs of becoming a competitive team on a daily basis.

So the next day, the players rolled up their sleeves and got back to work, with Krier correcting a base-running flaw he noticed during the win — the footwork of properly rounding third base. That was understandable; these kids don’t advance that far very often.

“The sad thing is I knew more about baseball than most of the (players) my husband coached that first season,” Megan Krier said.

Tommy Krier was an assistant coach at Cimarron-Memorial in 2009 when the Spartans upset Gorman in the Sunset Regional title game. He dreamed of running his own program. But when he learned that Western needed a coach, he hesitated. The coach over there, he knew, almost has to beg for players to join the team.

He asked Megan for advice.

“She said, ‘Those kids deserve to have a good coach just like kids at any other school,’ ” he said.

Krier got the baseball coaching job. In fact, he was the only person to apply for it. He also was assigned to the counseling department to help students get on track to graduate, and fell in love with the school’s history and tradition. He organized a fundraising effort to order uniforms resembling those from Western’s state title teams in the 1960s and designed a website for the program that pays homage to the great traditions of past seasons.

But returning to those glory days would be an uphill battle. Krier couldn’t even land an assistant coach for his first two seasons. What he was succeeding in, however, was winning players’ confidence with his dedication and consistency.

And it seems to be paying off this season.

“I had a good feeling we were going to win because my defense was backing me up and we were hitting the ball good,” said Warriors pitcher Joshua Yocum, who went the distance against Sierra Vista. (Here’s a kid who can play college ball, Krier said.)

So if there’s a little strut in his team’s stride this season, that’s OK. At practice, some players wear Western baseball pants that Krier found stored away and that go back to the ’80s or ’90s, because those were good years. The players are giving shout-outs to one another for good defense and stronger hitting. They’re not moping so much about their chronically unmanicured playing field. They’re coping with it with a growing level of class and confidence.

Krier, a quiet sort, lets his star pitcher, Yocum, do the talking:

“Sierra Vista, they just weren’t into the game as much as we were. They came in here thinking they would blow past us like they always do. But we came ready to win and ready to play hard. The way I see it, it doesn’t matter how good your facility is or how many extras your team has. What matters is your heart and how much you love the game. And we have a lot of players who are going to fight each time they put that jersey on.”

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