April 18, 2014

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Keystone’s Jim Piazza named national coach of the year

Jim Piazza, who led undefeated Keystone to the Division II state softball championship last month, is the national high school coach of the year.

The honor was announced Friday by ESPNHS, the cable TV network’s high school sports website.

“Jim Piazza has coached Ohio’s winningest softball program for the last decade,” the announcement said. “And during that time, the mentor of Keystone (LaGrange, Ohio) cites a ‘family atmosphere’ among players, parents, fans and boosters.”

Led by their eight seniors, the Wildcats were 32-0 this season, giving Piazza and the program a 285-35 record in the 10 years he has been the coach. He succeeded Larry Shaw in 2003 and has won two of the school’s three state titles, his first in 2006.

“Any time you receive an honor like this, it never recognizes the work of one person,” Piazza said in a phone conversation. “It rewards the work and support of many people — the assistant coaches, the players, the school and the community.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “You put in the time and when you receive something like this, you realize it has been worth all the time and hard work. You also realize it has been worth all the time and hard work the other coaches and players have put in, the help and cooperation of the parents and the unbelievable support we receive from the entire community.”

The ESPNHS website quoted Piazza as saying: “Any recognition is a reflection on how dedicated and focused our team was on achieving our … goal of winning a state title. After finishing as runner-up (in 2011) with eight underclass regulars, our players were determined to go all the way this season.”

The Wildcats were defeated 4-0 by Poland Seminary in the state championship game last season. This year, they returned the favor by the same score in a state semifinal.

Former Keystone coach Dave Leffew, who guided the Wildcats to their first state championship in 1999, hired Piazza as an assistant.

“When I asked him to coach, he was coaching basketball at Lake Ridge Academy,” said Leffew, who is the pitching coach at Ashland University. “I watched his team play and I was impressed that his team was very disciplined and they hustled. When I got the idea to make him my JV coach, I called him up and he said, ‘I don’t know anything about fastpitch softball.’

“I said, ‘We have a great group of kids coming up, so you won’t have to teach them too much, because they already know it. Most of all, I watched your team and they were disciplined and listened to what you said. I want these kids to learn discipline and I want them to hustle.’

“Those were the two things I was looking for and he had them. So I knew he wasn’t going to lose too many games, and obviously he did learn the game.”

Piazza has said several times he considers this season’s team the best in the school’s rich softball history. Among other things, it hit a state-record 45 home runs, which easily eclipsed the record 35 it hit last year. The Wildcats went 117-11 in the four years the seniors were on the roster.

Piazza’s selection is the latest in an ongoing series of honors the team has received in the postseason.

Most recently, pitcher Kenzie Conrad was chosen a first-team All-American by ESPNHS on Thursday. On June 25, Conrad was named national high school player of the year by MaxPreps, an online affiliate of CBS Sports.com. She is the first Ohioan to be a national softball player of the year.

At the same time, MaxPreps named Conrad to its All-America first team and made shortstop Erin Pond a second-team selection. Only a day earlier, Conrad was named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-America first team. Pond was a second-team selection and catcher Bri Buckley was named to the NFCA third team.

On June 5, Pond was honored as the Lorain County Softball Coaches Association player of the year and two weeks later Conrad was named Lorain County Miss Softball for 2012.

The team was honored on the floor of the Ohio Senate, Conrad was chosen by Gatorade as the Ohio softball player of the year, seven of the Wildcats were named first-team All-Patriot Athletic Conference and All-Lorain County and Piazza was the county’s Division II coach of the year.

And the Wildcats were selected as the best high school softball team in America by two polls, MaxPreps and NFCA-USA Today.

Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or softball@bobdaniels.info.

NATIONAL ‘CATS

Keystone’s national honors this season …

• Jim Piazza, national coach of the year, ESPNHS
• Kenzie Conrad, national player of the year, MaxPreps
• No. 1 team in the country, MaxPreps
• No. 1 team in the country, NFCA-USA Today
• Conrad, Erin Pond and Bri Buckley named All-Americans by various organizations