By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — If there was any question as to whether New Covenant Academy made the right decision when it hired John Hartley to build its baseball program from the ground up, it may have been answered when players took the field for the first practice in team history.
The Warriors honored the man they call “Poppa Hart” in an on-field ceremony during Thursday’s game against Fair Play, commemorating the coach who took a team that didn’t even have a home field in 2015 and led them to the state championship game a year later.
Hartley retired from New Covenant after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season, finishing his tenure with a 92-36 record that included two district championships.
But as he addressed the crowd on Thursday — surrounded by his family on the field and with several members of his inaugural team in the crowd — he thought back to what he saw on the day of the team’s first practice.
“Right above us in center field was a halo,” Hartley recalled.
For a man who studied to be a pastor before finding his calling in coaching, the sight was a symbolic beginning to one of the most rewarding experiences of a decorated 40-year career.
After spending 22 years at Willard, three seasons at College of the Ozarks and another eight years coaching travel baseball, Hartley was searching for a new opportunity when he saw New Covenant was seeking a coach to guide the school’s first baseball team.
He jumped at the chance — an added bonus was that he’d get to teach middle school Bible — and began the monumental task of assembling a roster and establishing a culture.
The team unearthed an audio clip of one of Hartley’s early informational meetings and played it during Thursday’s ceremony. In it, he told the story of how he fell in love with baseball at an early age — his mother joked that he was born wearing a cap, as he’d never be seen without it — and promised to share his love of the game with anyone who signed up.
His grandfatherly demeanor was an instant hit with the Warriors.
“He’s not just our coach,” senior Nathan Good said. “He’s our guy. He’s like a grandpa. He’s always there for you. To give him this recognition, he’s more than deserving of it.”
The team announced Thursday that the third-base home dugout will now be known as “Poppa Hart’s Dugout’ and presented him with the game ball used to throw the first pitch in program history, encased in a structure that honors him “for pioneering NCA’s baseball program and instilling in your players a love for God, each other and the game.”
That pitch was thrown March 31, 2015, nearly six years to the day before Thursday’s ceremony, and was a relic of a year when New Covenant played a road-only schedule while construction crews built a ballpark on land between the school and Kansas Expressway.
It’s a reminder of where the program was when Hartley started and where it is now.
“This was more or less a landfill,” Hartley said. “If you had driven down this little lane that first year, it was terrible. But this is where we were going to put this. That first year, we played all away games and we borrowed Central’s field, which was NIchols Park, for a senior night.”
What’s now known as Federal Protection Field was completed for the 2016 season, and quickly emerged as one of the crown jewels of Missouri high school baseball stadiums.
“You see the outcome here,” Hartley said. “Fortunately they had spent seven years preparing for this in prayer and in money and now you see prayer and in money and now you see the best high school field in Springfield. A lot of it is because of their preparations.”
Plans for the field may have been in place before Hartley arrived, but what happens on the field can be attributed directly to him. Though he’s stepped away, his three loves — Love God, love the game and love your teammates — are still at the heart of the program’s identity.
“If it wasn’t for Poppa, there are a lot of guys that come from New Covenant that wouldn’t get the opportunity to play baseball,” Good said. “A lot of guys learn what the sport is and learn to love the sport the way he loved it. Just the example that he set day in and day out of how to play the sport right and how to have fun with it. It’s something I look up to and admire.”
Hartley’s tenure at New Covenant came to an abrupt end with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He originally planned to retire after the 2021 season, expressing a desire to leave with the current senior class, but losing the season made him reevaluate his plan.
“I just thought it was probably time,” Hartley said.
He handed the reins to Chris Long, a longtime friend and colleague who has the Warriors off to a 4-1 start that includes a 13-2, four-inning win over the Hornets in Thursday’s matinee.
“He’s been so impactful for 40-plus years and he’s been a personal mentor for me as a person, as a Christian, as a coach and as a leader,” Long said. “To be able to come out here and play a game like that on a day that we’re honoring him is awesome.”
All Hartley knew about the day was that he needed to keep April 1 open, because the team had something planned for him. He said the honors were a complete surprise — and not just that he was the recipient of them. He didn’t know you could even have a name on a dugout.
“I’ve never heard of that before,” Hartley said. “I’ve heard of fields, parks and different things being named after (people) but I’d never heard of a dugout. So that’s kind of new. I am humbled and obviously I appreciate it, but the only way that matters at all is about the kids that are inside that dugout. Hopefully people will carry on well past me to keep the tradition alive that we’ve created, and that’s all that really means to me.”
The early returns indicate there’s a good chance that will happen.
“He definitely set the culture around here,” senior Dillon Dougherty said. “Everything that he’s done has moved on to us. We’ve kept his program and his mentality. Just had a new coach doing the same things.”
Long, the new coach, offered Hartley one more gift for Thursday’s game, but he declined.
“I told him if he wanted to coach third base that he could have it — and I meant it, too,” Long said. “He wants to come out here, he can have it.” Obviously, he started this program and he really laid the groundwork for this. He’s been by several times this spring just because he loves the kids and he’s still interested and invested in their future and still here to help lead them. He’s welcome to be around any time we can possibly have him around.”