12/25/2012 9:59:00 PM TOP SPORTS STORIES OF 2012: #7 - Tradition Turnover The baseball program at Yavapai College had a solid history and winning tradition when Sky Smeltzer took over. The tradition was even stronger when he left.
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier Yavapai head coach Sky Smeltzer finishes a pep talk with his club after the first game of a doubleheader on April 10, 2012, in Prescott. After 16 years and the most coaching wins in program history, Smeltzer stepped down in 2012.
New coaching eras for a baseball program charging through its fifth decade don't come around very often.
From the year the baseball program debuted on the Prescott campus at Yavapai College in 1971 through 2012, only five head coaches have guided the Roughriders. No one coached more games or won more in the Green and Gold than Sky Smeltzer, who stepped down from his post in November.
His was the longest tenure (16 years) with the most games coached (947) and the most wins (629) in the history of the Roughriders. Including a stint as assistant coach, Smeltzer, 46, left the campus after almost 20 years in the Prescott dugout to move to his native Denver and be closer to family.
"I found him engaging, personable, full of energy. And when he took the job, we always checked with him," former Yavapai College baseball coach Gary Ward said this month. Ward inaugurated the program in 1971, and captured two national championships with the Roughriders in 1975 and '77. He compiled a 240-83 record during his seven years with the Roughriders, and in 2008 was inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.
"In a small community of that nature, they appreciate not only that you're representing the college but the community. And in doing things right," Ward said. "When you have that kind of tenure - I spent the same 20 years at Oklahoma State - it's family. It's family for the players that come."
Ward, 72, lives in Oklahoma today, and is a part-time assistant under his son, head coach Rocky Ward, with the baseball program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He brought to the Yavapai campus the high standards carried on through the Smeltzer era.
"It's a great place to live, a great place for people to come, and kids will enjoy coming to school here," Ward said. "That's more important sometimes than coaching and recruiting is getting a culture established where people want to be."
Smeltzer coached four Arizona Conference Players of the Year, 16 All-Americans, and helped 125 players hear their names called by Major League Baseball teams on draft day, including 28 players who went in the first and second rounds.
His best club, record-wise and by his own admission, came in 2006.
That year's team posted a program-record 58 wins and advanced to the NJCAA College World Series final in Grand Junction, Colo. There the Roughriders came within one inning of capturing Yavapai's fourth national championship.
"It's always been a tradition-rich program, and I've always seen it as my job to carry on those traditions of having a quality program and quality people and working to help the community and the baseball here," Smeltzer told the Courier in November, the day he submitted his resignation, and effectively retired from baseball coaching. "It's not always about wins and losses. It's about those relationships with those kids and seeing them make their dreams and goals come true."
That tradition is now in the hands of Smeltzer's former assistant, Ryan Cougill, 31, who the college tabbed to take over as the sixth head coach in program history. The college said Cougill will serve in an interim basis for the upcoming season, which opens Jan. 25 at a tournament at the College of Southern Nevada, and that a national search for Smeltzer's full-time successor will take place this spring.
"Sky's one of the main cogs in our athletic department, and he's a great individual with a great personality who's very vivacious and engaging. So it's going to leave a hole," then-YC Athletic Director Scott Farnsworth told the Courier in November.
Ward, after his days at Yavapai, continued to work with Smeltzer from afar.
"He was a good voice and a good set of eyes to discuss Arizona junior college prospects with, and we did that occasionally," Ward said. "I brought him into some camps that I worked in Vegas. I was around him enough to appreciate his energy and his approach to the game."
After a baseball coaching career that has spanned 50 years, Ward also fully appreciates the reality of walking away from the dugout.
"You fall in love with the kids who walk through the fire with you," he said. "It's really hard to leave the game and leave the business. And not because of the scoreboard but because of the people in the business of baseball and in the business of coaching, but in particular the young men that are going through the athletic experience."
Ward has spent the last couple of years helping his wife back to good health in their Oklahoma home. This fall, he returned to work with Rocky.
"Who knows, I'm not afraid to go coach again, if she's healthy," Ward chuckled. "So is the Yavapai job open? Do I have a chance for it?"
Bettors worldwide are expected to wager $100 million on the outcome of Sunday’s Super Bowl coin toss. In the past 46 Super Bowls, the coin has fallen heads 23 times and tails 23 times. How will Sunday’s coin toss go?