Joplin coach Kyle Wolf’s pregame meeting at home plate with the umpires and opposing team’s head coach was a memory he’ll hold onto for the rest of his life.
Standing across the plate was legendary St. Mary’s Colgan coach Mike Watt, for whom Wolf was an assistant for over 12 seasons prior to taking the head coaching job at Joplin.
On Wednesday, their teams squared off on the diamond for the first time.
“They are a good baseball team and a good baseball program,” Wolf said prior to first pitch. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Watt and what he has done for my career, obviously, but I just have a lot of respect for their program. They’re going to make us play good baseball because they are going to do things the right way. Somebody asked me if there was any extra pressure. There really isn’t because at the end of the day, we just want to play and get better. But, it is going to be weird because a lot of the signs and verbals are going to be the same and we’re going to look very similar taking (infield and outfield warmups). Success leaves clues, and they’ve had a lot of success. I try to model some of the things they do.”
“I believe it was 12 years he was with me, and Coach Wolf is a passionate, high-energy guy,” Watt said. “Not only is he a very good coach, but he is a good friend. I hated to see him leave, but for him to take another step in his career to become a head coach, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Coach Wolf spent 12 seasons in Pittsburg, Kansas, with Coach Watt in the SMC baseball program. In that time, the Panthers had incredible success, including a total of nine state championships together. When Wolf was asked what Watt has meant to him in terms of his career, the Joplin coach answered without hesitation and explained why their relationship goes beyond the game of baseball.
“First and foremost, he is a baseball mentor, but he is also a friend,” Wolf said of Watt’s impact on his life. “We did a lot of fun stuff over those 12 years. We went to a lot of state championships, but just the relationship with him not only from a baseball perspective, but just off the field, too. He is a great baseball coach and a better man.”
Since Wolf has taken over Joplin, the Eagles have been trending up as a program. In Wolf’s second season two years ago, Joplin baseball finished with a winning record for the first time in five seasons on the way to winning a district title in the process. The Eagles are also off to a 6-1 start in 2021.
“He is a baseball guy, and I hope he learned something from me,” Watt said with a smile. “But it just makes me proud to see his success. Every time Joplin plays, I make sure to look and see how they did. He was a good colleague, a good coach and a better friend. This is a special time.
“He teaches kids how to play the game the right way, but most importantly, he teaches kids how to grow up to be good young men. That is a very positive message he sends all the time.”
Of course, when you have spent as much time together as Coach Watt and Coach Wolf have, there are an endless amount of positive memories to draw back on. It is clear their time together as Panthers will always be remembered fondly.
“In the 12 years there we had nine or 10 opportunities to play for a state title, and it’s easy to look at those things,” Wolf said about what he cherishes most in his time on the SMC staff. “But just the day-to-day of being in a program with high expectations and learning the little things from Mike that he has picked up over his time.”
“This may sound a little strange, but some of the best times were when the park was empty (after a game or practice),” Watt said when asked his fondest memories of having Wolf on his staff. “We would sit there at Jaycee with the lights out and the sun going down, we would just sit and talk baseball.”
Though this is the first matchup between the Eagles and Panthers, there are plans to keep this cross-state rivalry in place for the foreseeable future.
“I have full intentions of making the trip north and playing at Jaycee Ballpark,” Wolf said. “I have a lot of memories there as well. At the end of the day, I think it is easy to look at this game and think it doesn’t make sense in a lot of peoples’ eyes. But, I know who we are going to tangle with and it’s beneficial for our kids to compete against them.”
Coach Watt had a slightly different take.
“Well, if I beat him, we probably won’t play again,” Watt said with a laugh.