Garden State Baseball Coaches Clinic is a home run

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KENILWORTH, NJ — Union High School baseball coach Angel Navarrete continues to build, to listen, to learn, as far as making the Union Farmers one of the best baseball programs in the state.

The former Cranford High School Class of 2000 and Ramapo College of New Jersey standout baseball player is not quite there yet, but he and his staff have had their moments since he took over in 2014.

The Farmers won 17 games and reached the Union County Tournament semifinal round in both 2018 and 2021.

Still seeking its first UCT title since 1993 and initial North 2, Group 4 crown since 2002, Union has shown promise in recent years that it can compete with the elite teams in Union County, starting with Cranford High School and continuing with Governor Livingston, Westfield and Scotch Plains–Fanwood high schools

“It’s not easy. Those teams, those programs are quite good,” Navarrete said. “We’re going to keep working hard, so we can get to their level. Our goal is to win every game.”

Out on the circuit to pay attention and listen to some of the top college coaches in the country, Navarrete attended the second Garden State Baseball Coaches Clinic on Friday, Dec. 9, held once again at Gamers Academy in Kenilworth.

For high school and college baseball coaches in New Jersey, the clinic was the place to be for seeking how baseball practices and programs are run on the highest levels.

“It’s always good, at any level of coaching, to learn new things and sharpen skills,” Navarrete said.

Rahway resident Hasani Whitfield is a co-owner of Gamers Academy and said he was more than thrilled with the turnout, which was a huge increase from the first clinic, which took place at Gamers in December 2021.

“We had 40-50 people last year and we did it on a Saturday,” Whitfield said. “It was more travel for coaches and dads, but it was a great event. The speakers were awesome.”

The room was much more crowded this time, as high school coaches — varsity, junior varsity and freshman — filled the seats, ready to jot down strategies in their notebooks that would help their programs gain an edge.

“This year, it grew to 110 people, with 95 percent of them high school coaches,” said Whitfield. “It’s a really cool thing to be able to bring coaches like this to the facility to learn from some of the top coaches in the country.”

Navarrete said he fully agreed.

“There’s always something to learn from these unbelievable coaches, to make your program better,” Navarrete said.

Those coaches included Mike Stawski, head coach of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor; Kevin Schnall, associate head baseball coach of Coastal Carolina University; Steve Trimper, a New Jersey native and Stetson University baseball head coach; Steve Owens, head baseball coach of Rutgers University; and Rob Sheppard, head baseball coach of Seton Hall University. Also speaking was Ryan Brownlee, assistant executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association.

“These coaches spend a lot of time in the field but also have lives and things to do in the offseason, so we decided to do it on a Friday, with a development piece,” Whitfield said. “Coaches could go back to their schools and athletic directors and say that they were not just taking a day off but going somewhere to learn to help their kids and their own schools. That was really vital.

“The development piece of this and to do it on a Friday really helped to get more coaches in the door to learn.”

Essential to the production of this clinic were Whitfield, fellow Gamers co-owner Jon Lewis, Gamers general manager Mike Kolesar and Governor Livingston High School head baseball coach Chris Roof.

“Coach Roof, Jon and I sat down and asked ourselves what was the best way to get the most coaches in here to learn,” Whitfield said. “We really wanted to help high school coaches.

“There are conventions all over the place, but you can’t get to all of them. To be able to bring the coaches here helps.”

The first speaker was Stawski, who coaches at a school located in the heart of central Texas.

Following Stawski was Schnall, who was an assistant at Coastal Carolina University when it captured the College World Series national championship in 2016.

“We had to figure out what day would work. Can we put in a professional development piece to help coaches get a day off from school to get them in and put a price range where it’s not really about the money?” Whitfield asked. “It’s more about being able to afford to bring the guys here, feed everyone, of course, and then, at the same time, keep it cost-effective for the school, so that the school’s coaches could come out with their whole staff and learn,” Whitfield said.

Following Stawski and Schnall was Trimper, animated and compelling when discussing the seven ways a second baseman is involved in turning a double play.

After a break for lunch, Brownlee spoke. He was followed by Owens and then Sheppard.

“Coach Roof and Mike Koelsar, our GM, did an awesome job putting the speakers together,” Whitfield said. “The … way they think and approach the game is on a level that, sometimes if you’re not in it, you don’t understand it.

“Being able to hear from them firsthand discuss practice procedures, plans and ways that they approach the game gives us a glimpse of what happens on a much higher level and brings that level to our lower levels, so we can give our kids an experience where they are doing things that were taught to them.”

Owens and Sheppard, representing the biggest college programs in the state, highlighted the second clinic and put it on another level, as far as high school coaches wanting to hear what they had to say about how they lead their programs.

“It’s always good, at any level of coaching, to learn new things,” said Navarrete, the head coach of the Union Farmers since 2014. “There’s always something to learn from these unbelievable coaches to better your program.”

“New Jersey has a ton of talent that goes on to the next level and does really well,” Whitfield said. “Not only do we have the talent in the state of New Jersey, but they represent us well at the high school level being coached by the coaches we have here.

“Jersey is a hotbed for talent.”

Like last year, there were also several vendors with tables for coaches to visit. They included GameChanger Fitness, Sports Paradise, Image360, Blast Motion Inc., Morris/Sussex Sports, JGB Sports LLC, Garcia Family & Sports Chiropractic and D&M Trophies.

“This is awesome,” Whitfield said, as he took another glance at all the coaches in attendance. “We thought we would do better than last year by bringing additional coaches in to learn from these guys.”

In addition to watching films and seeing what’s out there on social media, attending clinics such as this gives a coach an avenue to take notes and think about incorporating some of what he learns into the practices he has with his team.

“There have definitely been principles we’ve adapted from great coaches; hitting, pitching, things like that,” Navarrete said. “Clinics like the one here are great for hearing how these college coaches go about their business and how they are able to be successful.”

Photos by JR Parachini