The Highlands High School baseball team will be making its way on the diamond this spring with a new head coach. For some players, this will be the third coach they have played under in their career at the school.
Mike Johnson was hired after Rob McCoy’s stay was cut short by school officials.
Gary Schrader was head the head coach from 1996-2003 and McCoy was at the helm in 2004 and 2005 managing a 20-23 record with one appearance in the 9th Region Tournament, losing in the first round to St. Henry. The team ended 2005 with a loss in the first round of the 36th District Tournament to Newport High School. Officials at the school were unsatisfied with the performance of the team and relieved McCoy of his duties this past fall.
Johnson was one of 15 applicants to put in for the job, according to Highlands’ athletic director Dale Mueller.
Johnson ends a long list of coaches at Highlands that stemmed from the region. He attended Paul Blazer High School in Ashland, Ky. where his athletic career was plagued with injuries. Johnson says it’s his experience as a coach that has taught him more about the game than playing it.
“Actually I have had much more coaching experience than playing experience,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to land a job at Montgomery County High School in 1994.”
It was at Montgomery County that Johnson credits his greatest boost of knowledge.
“(I) worked under Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Juan Walters for seven years and I learned a tremendous amount from him.”
At Montgomery County, Johnson was the head coach for four years. He led his team to the semi-finals of the regional tournament once and to the championship twice.
“(We were) so very close to making it to sectionals, but just couldn't get over the hump,” Johnson said.
He said the 10th and 11th regions have great coaches and players and that it requires a lot of hard work to stay competitive in central Kentucky. But, the Bluebirds are hoping he can bring some of that competitive edge and hard work their way.
”The players are very excited about having a great baseball team,” said Mueller.
So, with all of this good experience in central Kentucky, why move?
Johnson is currently engaged to Stacy Kern. Kern is an engineer for 3M. Kern’s job was located to Batavia, Ohio where they live. Johnson said that he always wanted to relocate to the Northern Kentucky area and this was the perfect opportunity.
But it was more luck that he was able to continue coaching.
“I really did not expect to coach at all. I guess the timing was just right and I got lucky.”
The timing was good.
In most situations, especially in head coaching situations, employees teach and coach at the same school. Not Johnson. He shares his school spirit with Campbell County High School. He said he talked with Highlands principal Elgin Emmons in the late spring and summer of last year, but there were no positions available. So, he has to handle a day of teaching for the Camels in Alexandria then dodge traffic on U.S. 27 to make to practice on time in Fort Thomas.
“I really enjoy my job and the people at the high school. Sometimes it seems a little hectic running here and running there, but I just remind myself how lucky I am to have been given this opportunity,” he said.
Other than that, Johnson says he has had a normal transition thanks to the help of the rest of his coaching staff. All three of the other coaches have ties to the tight-knit Highlands community.
Jim Abner is the assistant varsity coach under Johnson. Abner was also an assistant under Schrader in the mid-90s. He graduated from Highlands, resides in Fort Thomas and has kids in the school system.
Jeremy Baioni will be the head junior varsity coach along with his assistant Aaron Stapleton. Both are products of Highlands and played under Schrader. Baioni graduated in 1997 and Stapleton in 2000.
”I am glad to have these guys. They are enthusiastic and want to see the program succeed,” Johnson said of his staff.
Two obstacles Johnson and his staff will have to avoid are the success of the Bluebirds basketball team and spring football. Spring football has been causing commotion in many Kentucky schools after its induction in the spring of 1999.
As of now, neither seems to be an extreme concern for Johnson, but he hasn’t experienced the full effects yet.
“I hope the basketball team can go to the state tournament this year. I know that there are a couple of guys on the team that played baseball last year and are interested in playing this year. But, I am sure they will be able to catch up,” he said. “Besides, I like multi sport athletes, there is no substitute for competition.”
Mueller is excited to see what kind of impact Johnson is going to have on, not only the program, but the kids as well.
“I could tell that he loved baseball and knew how to coach it and that he truly wanted to have a positive impact on the people that he coaches,” Mueller said of Johnson.
Johnson says he is ready for the challenge that lies ahead and reminds his players to take pride in their team.
“I tell the players, ‘this is our house. We will love our house (and) we will know it like the back of our hand, and take full advantage. We will defend our house to the hilt, and go nose to nose with anybody who comes into our house."