Gila Ridge names Kuzniak as new baseball head coach
32-year-old Cibola alum takes over Hawks after 6 years as assistant
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.
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.