1st-year baseball coach trying to change culture at McKeesport

| Thursday, March 27, 2014, 12:12 a.m.

The young boy in a baseball T-shirt looked bewildered when a visitor asked where the coach of the McKeesport High School baseball team could be found.

Upon hearing the coach's name, “Mr. Bishop,” the boy — who had been practicing indoors with the school's seventh-grade program — furrowed his brow and said, “I don't know him.”

Ron Bishop, in his first year as head coach at his alma mater, is hoping to change that don't-care perception of McKeesport baseball, but he said it's a task.

“People are attracted to winning programs,” Bishop said. “Look at what has happened with the Pirates. They're selling out now. We can attract more kids if the structure of our program changes and we start to win more games.”

McKeesport has not enjoyed a winning season since last qualifying for the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs in 2001. The Tigers opened their schedule Tuesday with a 11-2 home loss to Kiski Area, then spent Wednesday indoors working on their hitting.

They were scheduled to play at Class AA South Allegheny, but an overnight snowfall postponed the game. No makeup date was immediately announced.

The ping of bats rang throughout a gymnasium as McKeesport's players took advantage of portable batting cages. The team's roster is thin, with just 34 players combined in the varsity and junior varsity programs.

“We had 34 kids try out, and all of them made it,” Bishop said. “It was basically a tryout for the varsity roster. Our numbers are not normal for a WPIAL program.”

Perhaps it is a hint of why McKeesport's program has struggled for more than a decade. The Tigers were just 22-77-1 in six seasons under former coach Rick Satcho, whose contract was not renewed following the 2013 season.

McKeesport athletics director Charley Kiss has been encouraged by the direction of the program since Bishop took over, which has included the Tigers stepping up their offseason workouts.

“I will say this because I think it's very important in all athletic programs, that I have really admired the commitment, dedication and work ethic of the kids and coaches,” Kiss said. “I know for a fact those things get overshadowed by wins and losses, but not in my eyes.”

Bishop, a 1994 graduate of McKeesport, went on to play at Division II Pitt-Johnstown before relocating to suburban Baltimore, where he worked for an Annapolis-based government contracting company until last year.

He returned to McKeesport in 2011 but continued to be employed by the Maryland firm while also becoming heavily involved as a volunteer with the renowned Cal Ripkin Sr. Foundation of Aberdeen, Md., whose interests include camp sponsorships for at-risk children.

He worked the past two years from a location in McKeesport and joined the district's coaching staff as an assistant in 2012 before taking over the program. Bishop's current coaching staff includes assistants Ron Harris and Dana Brown.

“One of my main goals coming in was to work closely with all three of our feeder programs,” said Bishop, 37. “I want to see if we can get some consistency in instruction. Right now, they're all operating as separate entities.”

Bishop was referring to longstanding youth programs based in McKeesport and White Oak.

“I'm hoping to review them all and see if we can help them get some better structure within,” he said. “Fundamentals are a very important part of baseball, and the way we teach them should be consistent.

“We've already changed the structure of the program at McKeesport. Players will be held accountable for their actions on and off the field. They've been given a set of strict guidelines and we coaches expect them to abide.”

Despite the season-opening loss, Bishop was hoping McKeesport could build some success around at least three veteran senior players. Second-baseman Nick Grice was the team's second-leading hitter in 2013, while third baseman/righthander Nate Morgan and center fielder/righthander Dylan Ernst were impressive in the offseason, as well.

“They came to work every single day,” Bishop said. “They are great and well-respected kids and good students, just like others here. If you are going to build a program, you would like to build it around guys like them.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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