Juggling tragedy and a global pandemic, Orange Coast College Baseball’s first-year head coach Nate Johnson hopes to get his team ready for the approaching spring season.
In the span of two months, Johnson’s ballclub lost the winningest coach in program history to a helicopter accident, only to have any chance of playing in his memory revoked because of COVID-19 cancelations. Now, the team waits eagerly for permission to get back on the field to practice.
“We’re hoping for October 19. I am confident in that plan. If not October, we are hoping for January,” Johnson said.
The former assistant coach’s hiring comes after the tragic death of Pirates’ baseball pioneer and legendary coach John Altobelli.
“The shoes I have to fill are incredibly huge,” Johnson said. “I definitely feel prepared. (Coach) Alto took me under his wings eight years ago and showed me how it’s done. Because of what he did for me, I definitely feel ready to lead this program for years to come,” he said.
On top of the Altobelli tragedy, Johnson and his team have faced additional adversity with the coronavirus.
“When Alto died there was no playbook for how to get a team through that. Playing baseball was the best thing for us, and as soon as that was taken away from us in March, it got even harder,” Johnson said.
As the pandemic reaches its later stages, Johnson is working very closely with the school’s athletic director and dean to get his players back on the diamond. The Pirate’s season is scheduled to start April 10, so getting back into rhythm is a crucial part in preparing for next spring.
Whether or not the Pirates do get to suit up for competition in early April, there will always be one motive for the baseball team.
“This year is a continuation of last year, and that’s the goal. We are trying to win a championship for Alto,” Johnson said.
“It has become a rally cry. Obviously, he is never going to be forgotten here, that’s my job as head coach,” Johnson said. “When you walk out onto the baseball field, I already dubbed it ‘The House that Alto Built,’ and it's true. He built it all from nothing to something. He’s involved in everything I do and I definitely portray that onto the team as well,” he said.
Johnson earned his position at the head of the program after eight years with the team as an assistant coach. Prior to his coaching career, Johnson played Division I baseball at Pepperdine for four years.
This will be his very first opportunity as the leader of a program, so he always keeps his coaching style in mind.
“I got into coaching to be better than the coaches I previously had. Now I’m a coach and I can do things the way that I want and the way that I believe. Number one for me is to coach out of respect. I want guys to play free and with energy, so I would define myself as a player’s coach,” Johnson said.
“That’s why you coach. You coach for the players. Without players, there’s no coach. Everything I do centers around them,” he said.