Mike Kirkwood

(This is the seventh in a series of feature stories on the 2012 inductees into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame).

It was the toughest loss of Mike Kirkwood’s life, and one of the turning points of his coaching career.

Kirkwood, a New Castle High graduate now coaching at Neshannock, had guided the Lancers to the PIAA state semifinals in 1991, just his third year on the job. The team was on its way to Shippensburg to play for a bid in the state championship game, and Kirkwood, still learning the ins and outs of coaching, was scrambling to find someone to scout the other semifinal matchup.

“I was looking in the paper to see who was on the other side (of the bracket),” Kirkwood said. “And I was trying to get someone to go watch it, and I couldn’t get anyone to go scout it for me. We were playing the same day, and I just couldn’t get anyone over there to see it, so we were going in totally blind to the state championship game.”

The Lancers won their semifinal but lost to Columbia, 7-2, in the title game, and the defeat festered with Kirkwood. It wasn’t necessarily because it was the state championship, he said, but because he knew what he did wrong.

“I felt like I cheated the kids, and from that point on I made sure we’re always ready and prepared and we know what the other team’s going to do,” said Kirkwood, now in his 25th year coaching the Lancers. “Just like tonight, going down to watch Western Beaver and Union just to make sure we know what we want to do and what our approach will be.”

Needless to say, Kirkwood learned from his mistake, and he’s been applying what he retained ever since. Neshannock has won nine section championships, three WPIAL titles (1991, 2004, 2011) and a WPIAL runner-up (2010) and has a 241-132 record during his tenure. Oh yeah, he got a bit of redemption from 1991 — winning the PIAA title in 2004.

And that’s just as a baseball coach. There’s also Kirkwood the golf coach, and Kirkwood the player.

The combination has brought another honor. Kirkwood will be inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame on April 29 at the New Englander.

The distinction could be granted for a number of reasons. Kirkwood was a standout catcher for the Red Hurricane in the early 1980s, graduating in 1983. He really began to see his potential when he received letters from major league scouts inquiring about his future plans. He considered going to Allegany College of Maryland, a place he visited during a tryout for the New York Mets, but he realized during a later visit that the campus and cost wasn’t within his means.

So, he returned to Pennsylvania, and it was in August, just months before school started, that he met Joe Hudak, a New Castle native who was the head coach at Geneva College. The two crossed paths while playing against each other in the North County League.

“He was a straight shooter,” Kirkwood said. “I felt like I could trust him. So, myself and Cedric Hawkins both decided to go (to Geneva). And it was probably one of the best things that happened to me, playing for him.”

Kirkwood enjoyed a successful career at Geneva, being named captain by his teammates as a junior and senior. He said he also gained a tremendous amount of incite about the game from Hudak and from playing catcher, a position that demands a player understands the many nuances of game situations. Hudak’s impact on Kirkwood was even more instrumental.

Hudak continued to break down the mechanics of the game and the thought process that goes in to in-game situations to Kirkwood, who said he was already thinking about coaching before he finished at Geneva.

“He was very knowledgeable, and I had a feeling I was going to get into teaching and I definitely wanted to coach,” Kirkwood said. “He taught me more about baseball than anyone.”

Kirkwood nearly coached with Hudak after he graduated from Geneva, but Kirkwood caught word that the Neshannock job had opened, and since he was from the area, he decided, at the age of 21, to apply for the job. Twenty-five years later, it was a smart choice.

Hudak isn’t surprised it worked out as well as it did.

“He was a student of the game and by the time he graduated, he knew the game and he had the ability to teach,” Hudak said. “Some guys may know the game, but they don’t have the ability to teach, and I thought he had that from the beginning.

“When I coached at Geneva and he played for me, we always said there’s no excuse for a lack of preparation. And I think when you look at his coaching, he’s done a great job preparing his kids to play. There are a lot of high school coaches who won’t even consider going to another game to watch. But Mike isn’t going to be outworked. That’s the reason I think he’s had the success he’s had because he’s thorough and he puts a lot into his preparation.”

And it’s not just baseball that Kirkwood focuses on each year. He’s led Neshannock’s golf team since 2009 and has a 44-2 record, three section crowns, a pair of WPIAL championships and a third-place finish in 2009. Believe it or not, Kirkwood has never played organized golf or taken a lesson. He only started playing a few years after college after watching his friend, Ralph Litrenta, win the New Castle News Golf Tournament.

“I was watching him play and they had the leaderboard out and the TV cameras and stuff like that, and I said, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,’” Kirkwood said. “So I started playing, and a few years later I shot a 70 and was in the last group (at the New Castle News Golf Tournament).

“Then I shot a 83,” he said with a laugh.

Kirkwood said at Neshannock he centers his tutelage on the mental part of the game. Similar to baseball, a few bad swings can cause lingering frustration, and Kirkwood said “having a short memory” goes a long way. He’s also fortunate to have friends like Litrenta, a former golf coach at New Castle who won the News tournament three straight years. He and others have helped Kirkwood become an avid follower of the sport.

He admits, though, that most of the time, he doesn’t tinker with too many of the kids’ swings.

“You don’t want to change too much,” he said. “Even in baseball when I have a kid who hits pretty well, I’m not going to change him because if he’s hitting, let him go.”

Kirkwood, 47, still lives in Neshannock. He and his wife, Nadine, have three children: Michael, 21, Chris, 20, and Marissa, 14. He said Chris is considering playing golf in college after he tore his Achilles’ playing football for Geneva College. That’s just fine with Kirkwood. He’s grown to love a sport he once said “he wanted nothing to do with.”

“I’m more of a fan of golf than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I watch some videos on The Golf Channel. If I’m not watching ESPN, I’m watching The Golf Channel.”

Just like in baseball, he’s learning on the job.

TOMORROW: Lori Haswell Stelter

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