Gerry Eck rattled off plenty of adjectives to describe his ascension from Archbishop Ryan baseball player to head coach.
Excited. Surreal. Unbelievable. Amazing.
In high school, many kids play sports, but few of them get to experience the feeling of coming full-circle to coach the team they once played for decades later. Eck, who played at Ryan in the late 1980s and has been a varsity baseball assistant since 2010, was tabbed as the school’s head coach when incumbent Ron Gerhart decided to retire.
And if you think coaches don’t feel the butterflies in their bellies the way players do before a game, think again.
“Before our first non-league game against Central, I was scared to death, to the point where our trainer asked me if I was OK,” Eck said with a laugh by phone on Monday morning. “I want to do so well and represent this school well, too. I love baseball to death. It’s a religion in my family. My goal for us is to be a powerhouse in the classroom and on the field. I truly believe we can make them dominant. We’ve always been pretty strong, but I want to put it on another level.”
Despite the difficulty of the Catholic League Red Division (or, the stronger of the league’s two divisions, which features Ryan, Judge, Roman Catholic, La Salle, Cardinal O’Hara and St. Joe’s Prep), Eck believes he has the players to make an immediate run at the crown.
The Raiders are coming off a third-place 9-6 season in the Red Division, a game behind the Prep and two behind La Salle. First-team All-Catholic selections Gage Galeone (outfield), Chris Elmes (pitcher) and Dan Stahl (designated hitter) all graduated, but top-line returners include outfielder Connor Golden and the left side of the infield in Tom Derer and Bobby Romano. Derer (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and Romano (Fairleigh Dickinson) have already committed to Division-I baseball programs, while Golden is bound for Bucknell on a football scholarship. Eck will lean heavy on this experienced senior trio, which should ease his transition from assistant to head coach.
“We have a good bond, and I’m very into having good relationships and open lines of communication with the kids,” Eck said. “It goes a long way. I want us to build a good rapport, and that senior leadership is huge. They’re tremendous. That’s the leadership we need, and we’re getting it.”
The extended, often brutal winter weather has been a bit of a monkey wrench for Eck and company, but he said he expects his team to “come out guns blazing right out of the chute.”
“We’ve done a lot of indoor hitting, so our pitching might be ahead of the offense in the first couple of games,” Eck said. “We’ll be ready. The kids are so excited. They’re chomping at the bit and are real jazzed to get out there. The energy level is high octane. I expect us to contend, no doubt in my mind.”
Eck mentioned junior second baseman Chris Sanchez and junior catcher Josh Lopez as names to look out for. He said Lopez “could be one of the best catchers in the area and is getting interest from minor league scouts.”
Above all else, Eck, who has a son and a daughter currently enrolled at Ryan, wants this season to be akin to a family affair. He remembers the 2010 Ryan team fondly, one that unexpectedly went on a Cinderella postseason run that fell one glass slipper short of a Catholic League championship.
If anything, he wants this season — and the ones to follow — to serve as a well of memories for years to come. Eck told a story of a recent alumni beef-n-beer he attended in which he ran into a Ryan baseball player who suited up for the school’s inaugural team in 1967. The conversation stuck with Eck.
“This guy, he’s in his 60s, he played in the very first baseball game at this school, and he’s telling me how he can’t wait to come out and see some of our games,” Eck said. “That’s the kind of experience I want our kids to have. I want them to be able to have memories when they’re old and gray, saying to each other, ‘Hey, you remember that game against Judge?’ or ‘Remember that playoff game against the Prep?’ It’s neat to be able to have that experience.”
Eck himself said he’s shared plenty of his own memories, as he and current Archbishop Wood head football coach Steve Devlin played football and baseball together during their time at Ryan. The two remain close friends to this day.
“It’s surreal, almost. This feeling, to come back and be able to coach these kids at Ryan, it’s hard to explain,” Eck said. “It keeps you young, working with them day in and day out, seeing them achieve things. I tell them that it goes fast, and that athletics can open a lot of doors for these kids. Hard work can go a long way, and I’m really excited with this bunch that we have.” ••