Army veteran offers leadership, perspective for La Roche baseball
La Roche baseball coach Chase Rowe and his right fielder, John Watson, frequently talk about hitting and other aspects of the game. They also have discussed teething, diaper rash and how girls generally talk sooner than boys.
Both have 3-year-old sons.
“We've definitely had some interesting conversations on the ballfield,” Rowe said.
Rowe, 30, became a head coach at 23, a toddler among peers. Watson is much older than his teammates and maybe all his opponents. A junior, he is 26, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. His teammates call him “Sarge” and “Grandaddy,” with respect.
“I know the guys look up to him,” Rowe said.
“I think he gives us a good perspective,” senior shortstop and captain Sean Lubin said. “Us being in our early 20s or late teens, sometimes things can seem a lot worse than they are. He keeps everyone grounded.”
Like his teammates, Watson can hit, too. La Roche, which went 15-1 in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and hosts the AMCC Tournament starting Friday, leads Division III in slugging percentage (.528) and is sixth in runs per game (8.9).
The Redhawks have outscored opponents 356-135.
Watson is batting .371 with a club-best six home runs. If that sounds modest, consider that the team hit nine homers in the past two seasons combined. It has 21 this season.
“(Watson) has tremendous, tremendous power,” said Rowe, adding that “he's still developing as a hitter.”
Watson stands 6-foot-3 1⁄2, weighs 205 pounds and is miles ahead of last season, when he joined the team as a walk-on. He transferred from CCAC Boyce after the school dropped baseball.
“Last year was the first year I played real baseball,” he said. “I came from a high school that wasn't too successful. I never really had a coach that really cared or wanted to win as much as Coach Rowe.
“This year, it's been more (a matter of) experience at the plate. Remembering some of the pitchers, how they pitched to me, laying off bad pitches. I really didn't have any knowledge of the game. It took me awhile to catch on.”
Watson grew up in Frisco, Texas. He married the girl next door, Tiffanie, whom he has known since seventh grade, after returning from Afghanistan in 2009. Caleb is their son. Watson is majoring in health science. He wants to pursue a graduate degree and work helping veterans.
Inspired by his family's military backround and a friend who served, Watson enlisted after high school and was deployed in April 2008. He served 13 months in Afghanistan with Bravo Company 1506, helping provide security for the locals and supply vehicles, and engaging in keeping the peace, or “letting the Taliban know we were there,” he said.
Some of the firefights were “intense,” said Watson, who was discharged as an E5 sergeant. “It was life-changing. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared. A lot of rounds are going over your head, and you don't know where they're coming from.”
When he struggles at the plate, he said, “I tell myself it's not the end of the world.”
Lubin said he and his teammates “ask (Watson) questions here and there,” but don't press him on his military experiences. Said Rowe, “We really don't talk about it. I prefer to let him be a college student.”
“I absolutely love baseball,” Watson said. “I love the competitive nature. I love being part of the team. It reminds me of my platoon in the military, how close we are.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.