As Todd Williams closed within one victory of his 500th win as baseball coach at Pitt-Johnstown, he talked more about the number 20.
The Mountain Cats split a doubleheader against Gannon University on Thursday at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point, with the 3-2 win in the second game pushing Williams’ total to 499 in his 22nd season.
Pitt-Johnstown traveled to Gannon University and lost a doubleheader on Saturday, dropping the first game 6-5 and falling 4-0 in the second contest.
“Truthfully, I’m more excited that we got to 20 wins again for the first time in five years,” Williams said of the Mountain Cats’ 20-16 mark. “I credit the team for turning it back around and working hard. I want to try to get the program back to where it was, before I leave in three years when I retire.
“I want to go out and leave the program better than where I found it.”
Indeed, this year the Mountain Cats have enjoyed a resurgence after four consecutive losing seasons, including a 12-30 mark last year (9-19 in the PSAC).
Pitt-Johnstown went 18-30 and 18-27 in 2017 and 2016, respectively, with the low point coming during a 7-37-1 season in 2015.
Those who watched the Mountain Cats program struggle through the late 1980s and much of the 1990s might have been worried about the trend.
Staying the course
The ever-optimistic Williams remained committed to the formula that helped him and his staff mold the Mountain Cats into a program that produced four seasons with 30 or more wins during a stretch from 2004 through 2010.
The former Pitt-Johnstown player had returned the program to prominence once before, so why not now?
“He just brings a good mentality to the field every day,” said Pitt-Johnstown junior pitcher Brady Walker, a North Star High School graduate and the local MVP of Martella’s Pharmacy’s AAABA Tournament championship game win in 2018.
“He loves to push everyone to be their best. He’s there every day,” added Walker, who is 6-0 this season. “Him being his age – no offense to him – he’s there working every day, so we should be there working just as hard.”
Williams, 56, has set an example since he became head coach of the Mountain Cats during a tough 12-35 debut season in 1998.
He played for former coach Ken Keiper, the late local baseball icon and Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Famer.
Pitt-Johnstown was a regional power in the mid-1980s.
Williams graduated in 1984, which was the Mountain Cats’ last winning season until Coach Williams led the 1999 team to a 21-16 mark.
The wins kept coming. The Mountain Cats set a record with 31 wins and only 14 losses in 2004. The mark eventually was surpassed twice in 2006 (33-18) and 2008 (37-19-1) and nearly matched in 2010 (30-18).
The 2006 Pitt-Johnstown team advanced to the NCAA Division II North Atlantic Region Tournament. Two years later, the Cats returned to the regional event.
‘Took that to heart’
“It all starts with how competitive Coach Williams is,” said Greater Johnstown graduate Casey Long, who began his career at Pitt-Johnstown in 2002, played at Division I Pitt and returned to the Mountain Cats to complete a Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame career in 2007.
“You had to be a member of the team to see just how competitive he was,” Long said. “Recruiting, very personable, positive and upbeat. When he got you in the program, you saw he wanted to win probably more than the players wanted to win.
“We took that to heart. He really modeled what competitive excellence looked like.”
Williams also believed then and still maintains that the high school players coming out of District 5 and District 6 have the ability to play – and succeed – at the Division II level.
“In the early 2000s, Todd started to bring in some of the marquee players from the area and they did well at the Division II level,” Long said. “Once the marquee players here in high school saw some of the former marquee (high school) players doing well at UPJ, it caught on.”
Point taken. Pitt-Johnstown’s current roster includes players from high schools throughout the region.
Bishop McCort Catholic. Richland. Windber. Cambria Heights. Bishop Carroll Catholic. North Star. Blairsville. Hollidaysburg. Altoona. All are represented.
“We have good quality ballplayers in this area,” Williams said. “We’ve based our program on a lot of local kids from nearly every school district in District 6 and District 5. We did it our way, the best we could.”
Williams has a 499-484-4 record at Pitt-Johnstown.
He is only the third coach in Mountain Cats baseball history, following his former coach, Keiper, who won 336 games in 26 seasons (1971 to 1997), and Jack Fetchko, who coached Pitt-Johnstown for one academic year (1970-71).
“I haven’t ever really had a coach like (Williams),” said sophomore pitcher Braxton Roxby, a Windber graduate with a 4-3 record and 53 strikeouts. “He helps you out in his own ways that aren’t usual things for a coach to do.
“He is confident in what we want to do, especially us as pitchers. He’s confident that we’ll make the right decisions. He puts a lot of trust in us and that helps us stay confident.”
Williams is confident about one other trend.
“We are on the upswing,” said Williams, who is assisted by Rick Roberts, Ian Stiffler and George Roberts. “We have a lot of good things happening for the next couple years.
“We’re excited where we’re at and where we’re going to be. It’s been a total team effort to get it back to where it was.”