Father-son combinations celebrate WPIAL baseball titles
While awarding his team WPIAL championship medals five years ago, Beaver baseball coach Bruce Herstine wished that someday he'd repeat the experience with his sons, who were that team's bat boys.
“I dreamed about it,” he said.
It happened this past week for the younger brother, when Herstine hung a gold medal around the neck of son Ben, a senior catcher for this year's Class AA champion.
“I always thought about how great it could be to put that medal on him,” he said. “I put it on him and we hugged. It was great.”
But the Herstines weren't the only family celebrating. Class A champion Western Beaver also had a father coaching his son — Chad and Nick Miller — in an arrangement somewhat familiar among WPIAL basketball champions yet rare for baseball.
Among title-winning baseball coaches in the past 10 years, only Peters Township's Joe Maize could relate. He coached his son, Aaron, when the Indians won the 2007 Class AAAA championship.
Yet, this year it happened twice.
“It's really nice,” coach Chad Miller said. “It's not just him, there are nine guys out there. But it's twice as sweet having your own son out there to experience this with you.”
Herstine, a senior, batted better than .500 this season for the Bobcats and once hit three homers in a game. A three-year starter, he was named Player of the Year in Class AA by the WPIAL Baseball Coaches Association.
With Herstine batting second, Beaver beat No. 1 seed Quaker Valley, 7-1, in Wednesday's championship.
Nick Miller, a junior, pitched a complete game Tuesday at Consol Energy Park and clinched the 2-1 title-game victory when he picked off an Our Lady of the Sacred Heart runner for the final out. His dad then presented him his medal.
“That was special,” Nick Miller said. “When we won Little League championships he would present the medals and trophies the same way, but this was definitely better.”
For both players, dad and coach have almost always been the same person, beginning years ago in T-ball. That arrangement has had its benefits and challenges, all four said.
“For me, it's been great,” said Bruce Herstine, who also coached older son Christian, now a freshman pitcher at Marietta College. “For them, they probably would say dad was a little harder on them than the other kids.”
“There's a learning curve,” Chad Miller said. “I've always been his coach since Day 1, but it's different once you step in that high school. ... I had to get used to not focusing on every little thing. As a dad at home, you tell him something and that's the way it goes. But on the mound the last couple years, I kind of let him go be him.”
There's also a learning curve as the son.
“Playing for my dad made (winning a title) a lot more fun,” Ben Herstine said. “He expects more out of you than everyone else, but he also gives you a lot more leeway.”
“It was a little rough at first because there was some added pressure,” Nick Miller said. “As I got older and showed what I could do, he settled down. Now he's a little mellow. ... I also started listening a little more to what he had to say.”
There have been other father-son combinations who won WPIAL titles, including Connellsville's Tom Sankovich, who did it twice. His son Tommy was on the 1982 championship roster, and son Brian won in 1986.
Nick Miller said he tries to call his dad “coach” during games. Ben Herstine has typically just stuck with calling his “dad.”
“I tell him, ‘When I'm on the field, I'm you're coach,' ” Bruce Herstine said. “But I think half the team calls me dad, because they're all his friends and they hang out at my house.”
“That was something we had to get used to as a freshman,” Miller said. “When you're in Little League or Pony League it's, ‘Hey, dad, why are you coming out here?' ”
Neck surgery kept Bruce Herstine from coaching this season's first several weeks. Instead, he watched games from his car.
“I got to just watch him play,” Herstine said, “and I really enjoyed it. I didn't have to critique him. I didn't have to change anything. It was fun, but I would have really missed getting on the field with him.”
The PIAA playoffs start Monday and conclude June 14. The championships fall on the Friday before Father's Day, lending a little extra significance this year.
“That,” Nick Miller said, “would be the best gift I could get him, right there.”