New Apollo-Ridge baseball coach awaits debut
It's not just the players who are eager to finally get out on the baseball field.
First-year Apollo-Ridge coach Joe Rice was scheduled to have already made his debut in charge of the Vikings, but the rash of weather-related postponements that has wiped out much of the spring's first week has kept Rice and his players indoors and in practice mode.
Weather permitting, Apollo-Ridge will play its season opener Thursday in a nonsection road game against St. Joseph, and count Rice among those who hope it happens.
“I'm very excited to get on the field. I cannot wait for our first game,” Rice said. “Practice has been much better than I anticipated coming into the season. I don't have a lot of high school baseball experience, but it has been fantastic working with these guys so far.”
Though the Apollo-Ridge job is Rice's first varsity baseball post, he does have plenty of experience in baseball and in schools.
Rice is the principal at Mother of Sorrows School in Murrysville, and he was the coach of the girls volleyball team at Greensburg Central Catholic before stepping down in 2007.
He began coaching his son in Apollo Little League and Pony League shortly afterward, and he has also been involved with the Freeport International Baseball Invitational.
“I've always had a great time coaching, so when the (Apollo-Ridge) position opened up, I applied for it,” Rice said. “It was good that I already knew many of the kids, either from coaching their younger brothers or playing with the dads in an over-40 league.”
Rice has kept his expectations measured for what the Vikings can accomplish this season.
Apollo-Ridge was 9-12 last season and 5-7 in Section 3-AA, but the Vikings were in the playoff hunt until dropping their final section game to Burrell.
A few key starters have graduated, but Apollo-Ridge has enough players coming back that Rice expects his group to be competitive.
“It's tough to come in your first year and have too many expectations. I can look and see stats from last year, but it's difficult to really see what's there,” Rice said.
“I'd love to come in and say my expectation is to win a state title, but we're going to start with making the playoffs and adjust our goals from there.”
One big advantage for Rice is a small but capable group of seniors he inherited for his first season.
Mitchell Johnston returns from a season in which he batted .358 with seven doubles, two triples and two home runs. Johnston is set to do it all for the Vikings, as Rice said the first baseman/outfielder/pitcher will likely open the season filling in at catcher.
Second baseman Ryan Ferguson returns off a season batting .306, and Zach Weinel adds to a speedy lineup by returning in center field. The team's fourth senior, Dominic DiBerndardo, comes into the season unable to play due to a shoulder injury, but he and the other three seniors have helped their new coach set the stage for what they all hope will be a winning season.
“I'm lucky to have amazing seniors. Those guys are truly team leaders,” Rice said. “They're excited about their senior year, and they're helping the younger guys come along. Their leadership has been tremendous.”