By LANCE MASTERSON
Of the Keizertimes
“It’s kind of a shock for me. It’s kind of a shock for everyone I’ve told so far,” said Craig Nicholas as he explained how his inner circle reacted when he told them he was stepping down as head coach of the McNary baseball program.
Nicholas’s coaching career spans 28 years. He joined former McNary coach Vic Backlund’s staff as junior varsity coach in 1985. He became the Celts’ head coach in 1999 when Backlund won a seat in the state legislature.
“Craig was a very successful, very loyal JV coach at McNary for 13 years,” said Backlund. “He turned down a number of head coaching opportunities at other schools because he wanted to be the next head coach at McNary.”
Nicholas was a part of all three of the school’s state championship teams. He was an assistant on the 1989 and 1992 teams and head coach of the 2009 team.
Nicholas based his decision on the desire to spend more time with family coupled with a change in perspective.
“When I started this thing 28 years ago, I don’t know where I was, but I was listening to a couple of old guys talking about how it was work, and I could never understand how coaching could be work,” Nicholas said. “And I always told myself that if I ever got to that point where I showed up and it felt like it was work then I’d get out. It’s turned into work.”
Backlund noticed the change in his long-time friend.
“I think Craig was no longer enjoying coaching baseball as much as he once did,” said Backlund. “I think the time and effort that he has put forth is wearing on him as well as his family.”
The end comes a few weeks after the defending state champions fell 1-0 to Reynolds in the opening round of the OSAA Class 6A state playoffs.
“I guess I was unbelievably disappointed up at Reynolds because we’ve never been beat 1-0. We’ve been shut out before, but never 1-0. And it came against a guy I looked at and thought, well, we’re going to drop 13 or 14 on him,” said Nicholas. “I was really disappointed. That’s a reflection on me, not the kids, because I didn’t find a way to get it done.”
Nicholas actually considered resigning last year after McNary won its third state title against Roseburg. But he felt he owed one more year to returning seniors Zach Moeller and Sean Curry.
No successor has been named, though Nicholas’s staff remains intact, with the exception of assistant coach Chad Booth.
“I love the program to its very core and will miss being around it more than words can describe,” said Booth, who also played for Nicholas.
Booth added: “I just can’t picture myself coaching without Coach Nick around. He called me his ‘right-hand man’ and when he decided it was time to resign, so did I.”
Booth played for the McNary varsity in 1998 and 1999 (Nicholas’s first year as head coach). He also played for Nicholas on junior varsity and American Legion teams.
The 1999 McNary team reached the state title game, but lost.
Booth, who joined the McNary coaching staff in 2004 after his college playing days ended, said his mentor will be a difficult act to follow.
“Coach Nick means everything to McNary Baseball,” said Booth. “His ability to get kids to play hard, all the time, is amazing to watch. He’s the ultimate leader, motivator and teacher.”
Nicholas could also rally the community around a cause, as in his drive to improve and beautify Vic Backlund field.
“The field’s in the best shape it ever was. Twenty-five years ago, with Vic, we preached to our kids that every year the place would get better,” said Nicholas. “This past weekend the 1992 team was in town for the Hall of Fame induction, and they all came out here and were in awe.”
Recent improvements have been made to the backstop, field and bleachers thanks mainly to volunteers.
“I think about high school facilities in the state of Oregon. North Eugene, by far, has the best baseball facility, there’s nothing close to it. Roseburg’s is unbelievable. And after that, there’s us,” said Nicholas.
No other sports program at McNary has won more state titles than baseball.
“The stability of the baseball program’s leadership has been one of the main reasons that McNary baseball has been so successful,” said Backlund.
Backlund coached McNary from 1966 to 1975 and from 1979 to 1998, Mike Jesperson from 1976-78, and Nicholas from 1999-2010.
A long-time defensive coordinator for Celts football, Nicholas left the team in 2009 when former McNary coach Tom Smythe offered him a similar position at Lakeridge. He gave Smythe a two-year commitment and will return in 2010.