West Valley Preps
From the outside, it sounds easy and natural — the former big league player takes over as coach of the local state championship program.
But Bob Howry had a brief taste of working with high school students right after he retired in 2011. And he did not intend to come back.
His son, Tyler, was playing football for the Northwest Christian junior high team. Athletic director Dave Inness asked Howry about coaching the Crusaders’ junior high baseball squad in 2016. It seemed like a non-starter.
“This went on for a couple weeks and at first I said, no. Finally I said as long as someone else is the head coach, I’d help out,” Howry said. “After that, I came back and said Frank Morgan, who’s my assistant coach this year — our sons are the same age — we’ll just coach the junior high team. With a week left in the junior high season, (varsity coach) JC (McKee) asked if I wanted to coach the JV team. Frank said he’d do it with me.”
Two years later, he was handed the keys to the top small school program in the state.
McKee left the program shortly after the Crusaders won the 3A state title in May 2017. Howry followed in his footsteps — McKee became the varsity coach after Rod Bair led the 2015 team to the Division III state title, then switched to coaching softball at Northwest Christian.
“When my son finished his last little league game I told my wife I was done coaching. I had no intentions of coaching. It kind of happened by default with the junior high thing and I’ve been slowly moving up.” Howry said. “Each year, we get new kids because I kept jumping ahead.”
He took over a veteran team, as 11 players on the varsity roster lifted the trophy last year.
Northwest Christian entered the week with a 18-5 record and the No. 3 ranking in 3A. But the transition was not as easy as it appears.
“It’s been difficult to adjust to the mindset and mentality of the coaching staff. The expectations have been lifted way higher and our attitudes at practice have to be a lot better. They don’t put up with anything. We have to earn their respect. It’s been tough but everyone is starting to buy into it and it’s working out well,” senior pitcher Davis said.
While they knew the name, most of this year’s squad had little interaction with Howry until the fall when he was announced as coach.
“He helped us out during the playoffs and did some coaching with pitchers,” senior first baseman Zac Driscoll said.
That clearly went better than Howry’s first experience with a high school varsity team. This time, he came back.
Howry remains one of only two baseball player to have his jersey retired by Deer Valley – along with Kris Davis. He played 13 seasons in the big leagues, most notably as closer for the Chicago White Sox.
He returned home after retiring in February 2011. Later that month he went back to his alma mater to help former coach Larry Eubanks with the Skyhawks.
It turned out to be Eubanks’ final season as head coach. Either way it was going to be Howry’s only year coaching the Skyhawks.
“Coach Eubanks was still there and I used to get ready for spring training there,” Howry said. “When I was done he called me up and asked if I wanted to meet his pitching coach. It was a good time and I enjoyed throwing some BP with the kids and messing around. Honestly, that year there was one kid on the pitching staff who wanted to work on the stuff we talked about. Coach ended up retiring anyway, but even if he was coming back, I was done. I was so frustrated by the fact that we were spending our time trying to teach them and they don’t care.”
He had no intention of coaching at the high school level again before speaking to Inness, whom Howry got to know when Inness was a football assistant coach at Deer Valley.
Some of his MLB peers have coached for years at the high school level and he learned about how to prepare a team. Naturally, Howry’s strength is working with pitchers.
“He helps out pitchers a lot. He knows what he’s talking about and helps out with our mechanics,” senior pitcher Maverick Veres said.
And his staff allows him to concentrate on his strengths.
Tony Graffanino’s youngest son, Nicholas, is a senior at the school and Tony visits to help the team occasionally. MLB veteran catcher Chris Snyder also pitches in from time to time.
“Having Frank Morgan as one of my coaches and Brian Beltramo is huge for me. They both have a lot of coaching experience. I couldn’t run a team without those guys. Now I deal with pitching and a couple other things. But when it comes to teaching these guys at this level — their hitting or fielding — these guys are the ones that make that happen,” Howry said.
At the same time, Howry’s years in the majors allowed him to absorb hitting strategies from the best batters.
“He helps us get better approaches at the plate and puts us in spots where we can succeed,” Smith said.
Howry said he is now better at toning down expectations.
But, Howry and his seniors both said practices are more serious affairs this season.
“Things were a little more relaxed. I told the boys early on that I didn’t want to come out here and spend three hours on the field every day. I’m not a big believer in practicing on Saturdays — go spend time with your family. What I do expect is that when we’re out here, we work hard and do it the right way. We don’t spend 45 minutes on something. We need to be efficient,” Howry said.
The Crusaders are forced to be more efficient, because as defending champs, they are seeing every opponent’s ace.
“I think it made us realize that state championships aren’t just going to be handed to us. We’ve got to do the little things right in games. Right now, we’re not making very many mistakes. Our games are close but we’re coming out on top,” Davis said.
In truth, Howry inherited a team that plays to his strengths.
Few schools, particularly below 5A, have a pitching staff the caliber of this Crusaders team. Davis juniors Ryan Lopez and Max Nebel and Veres spearhead the deep group.
“Not many high schools are deep in pitching and we’re very fortunate. Those guys keep us in ballgames. The thing we’ve stressed from the beginning is doing the little things to win ballgames, like being aggressive on the base paths, moving runners over,” Howry said.