Gila Ridge names Kuz­niak as new base­ball head coach

32-year-old Ci­bola alum takes over Hawks after 6 years as as­sis­tant

Yuma Sun - - SPORTS - BY WARNER STRAUSBAUGH

Ci­bola High School, Ari­zona Western Col­lege, the Yuma Scor­pi­ons, the Ari­zona Win­ter League, the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs Academy and Gila Ridge High School are all on the base­ball re­sume for James Kuz­niak.

So while it felt like an in­evitabil­ity that Kuz­niak, 32, would get a shot at a head-coach­ing gig in Yuma, he de­scribed the feel­ing as “sur­real” when he was of­fi­cially hired by the Yuma Union High School District on Wed­nes­day as the new base­ball at Gila Ridge.

“It’s been some­thing I’ve been wait­ing for, and I was ex­cited to hope­fully have the op­por­tu­nity,” Kuz­niak said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day. Kuz­niak was an as­sis­tant coach and pitch­ing coach for the Hawks over the past six years, dur­ing which they reached the play­offs four times, in­clud­ing a fourth-place fin­ish in the 2014 Di­vi­sion II State Tour­na­ment. He be­comes the sec­ond coach in school his­tory, re­plac­ing Greg Osowski, who re­tired after the 2017 sea­son.

Gila Ridge’s string of suc­cess in the early part of the decade put the team atop the hi­er­ar­chy of the Yuma base­ball scene, but the Hawks have fal­tered in re­cent years. They have a com­bined 20-37 record from 2015-17, though they did reach the D-III quar­ter­fi­nals in 2016 as a 24-seed that qual­i­fied for the play­offs with a los­ing record.

Kuz­niak hopes and thinks he can turn the pro­gram around, and that starts with the process he wants to es­tab­lish for his play­ers.

“As some­one who was never uber-tal­ented … I was

a guy that grinded it out and worked my butt off,” Kuz­niak said. “I’m just try­ing to teach the guys that there’s a process needed not only to be a good base­ball player but a good per­son.”

He later added: “I just think I’m a guy that the play­ers can re­late to. Be­ing a player my­self, I’m not young but I can still go out there and show them some stuff. … When you’re deal­ing with mil­len­ni­als, it’s not about what you know, but how you con­vey it to them. I’m try­ing to make it fun and up­beat, sim­i­lar kind of to how (Kofa coach) Richy (Leon) does it. I want guys to take a pro­fes­sional kind of ap­proach to it.”

Kuz­niak moved to Yuma in 2001 and was part of the Ci­bola team that went 30-3 and reached the 5A state quar­ter­fi­nals dur­ing his se­nior year in 2003. Fol­low­ing two years apiece at AWC and New Mex­ico High­lands, he

con­tin­ued his ca­reer as a left-handed pitcher in in­de­pen­dent base­ball be­fore get­ting in­volved in coach­ing and teach­ing.

Kuz­niak has al­ways been pas­sion­ate about base­ball in Yuma, and has seen its rel­e­vance slip in re­cent years. He hopes to use his plat­form as a head coach will help him con­tinue his ef­forts to raise the level of the game lo­cally.

“If there’s some­body that knows Yuma base­ball, it’s def­i­nitely my­self,” Kuz­niak said. “I’ve seen a lot of gen­er­a­tions of base­ball play­ers come and go. I’ve met a lot of the great ones. I’ve seen it all.

“I’m a big Yuma guy, whether it’s with guys that have moved on or moved up, we al­ways feel like we don’t get the re­spect we’ve de­served.”

Kuz­niak’s first game as head coach will be Feb. 27, 2018, when Gila Ridge hosts ri­val Ci­bola, whose head coach, Larsen Jones, was team­mates with Kuz­niak at Ci­bola.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YUMA UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT

JAMES KUZ­NIAK (MID­DLE) VIS­ITS THE MOUND dur­ing his role as pitch­ing coach last sea­son for the Gila Ridge base­ball team. Kuz­niak was of­fi­cially hired Wed­nes­day to be the Hawks’ new head coach.

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