Ryan Tapani ran the bases during a recent Providence Academy practice. The Lions were a co-op program with Heritage Christian before going it alone this year. Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
He counts John Lackey among his best friends and is the godfather to one of Francisco Rodriguez’s children.
The name-dropping could go on and on by the former professional pitcher, yet last spring Wes Crawford kept a low profile and did his best to blend in among the crowd at Heritage Christian Academy baseball games.
He was there just to watch, to get a glimpse of the future. And that time is now.
Most of the players on last year’s Heritage Christian team were actually students at Providence Academy, a small private school in Plymouth that in the past had formed a co-op with Heritage Christian for baseball. At this time last year, Crawford had just been hired — a year in advance — as the head coach for Providence Academy’s first varsity baseball team.
They appear to have gotten a good one.
Crawford played college baseball at Florida State before embarking on a professional career both in the Angels system and with independent league teams. That included a stop with the St. Paul Saints in 2002.
Hip injuries ultimately ended his career, but what a ride it was.
Now, he’s in a place he never thought he’d be: coaching high school.
“When I had a second surgery on my hip I knew I was done [playing baseball] and I thought I would be a pitching coach,” said Crawford, who did that in Kalamazoo for a while. “I never wanted to leave the game.”
But the rigors of low-level ball proved to be too much for Crawford and his young family. So he settled in the Twin Cities and took a part-time gig with the baseball team at Dakota County Technical College. When the head coaching job at Providence Academy opened up he figured he’d give it a shot. Though it wasn’t a slam dunk.
Wes Crawford, a former minor league player, has Providence winning in its first varsity season. Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
“When I heard they had never had a baseball team before I was like, 'Yeah, right,’” he said. “But I thought about it, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to just go in and interview, see what the process would be like just to see.”
Crawford fell in love with the intricate layout of the school immediately and made a good impression on Providence Academy Athletics Director Kurt Jaeger.
Crawford then had one year to get the team organized.
Everything for this Lions season has been new, from the coach to the equipment.
“We didn’t even have a pitch counter,” Crawford said.
But this isn’t Morris Buttermaker, and these aren’t the Bad News Bears. When the games began, the Lions showed they are not your average start-up team.
Senior pitcher Nick Krueger hurled a no-hitter in Providence Academy’s inaugural game earlier this month, a 12-0 victory over Trinity at River Ridge. Providence was 3-2 entering this week’s play.
“From the beginning these kids went right to work,” Crawford said.
They pretty much had to for any kind of cohesiveness to form. The Lions start six sophomores in the field. Krueger, who plays at third base or shortstop when he’s not pitching, and first baseman Paul Hillen are the only seniors on the roster.
“Already there’s a bigger sense of team chemistry,” Krueger said. “It’s not so divided. It’s a lot easier to play for your school. Because this is the only year [for the two seniors] we really have to go out there and make it count.”
Krueger and Hillen will have to settle for enjoying Providence Academy’s future plans as alumni. The school is about a year away from breaking ground on a $15 million project that includes turf and expanded seating for the football stadium, a baseball diamond, tennis courts and a performing arts center.
For now, the Lions play home games in Loretto. And while thoughts of a nice, new field are on the minds of the program’s younger players, there’s another field dancing in their heads as well.
“The goal is [state championship site] Target Field and they believe it, they really do,” Crawford said.