Two familiar faces have stepped up as new assistant coaches for the Neosho County Community College baseball program.
Former Panther Josh Merrill and Ben Smith were approved as new assistant coaches in June. Merrill was hired as a paid assistant, while Smith will be volunteering as a coach following his retirement from NCCC in June as the Vice President of Operations.
Merrill, who was recruited as a two-way player, pitched for the Panthers from 2011 to 2013. He was a part of the 2012 NJCAA Region 6 Championship and the 2013 NJCAA Central District Championship teams before attending University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2013 and graduating from King University in 2014.
The 2013 Academic All-American went on to coach high school baseball at Bonner Springs High School and for a traveling club in Wichita from 2015 to 2018. After both stints, Merrill, 27, said it was time for him to come full circle and coach where he began collegiate baseball.
“With the culture of Neosho County, I’m getting the chance to come back and coach with Coach (Steve) Murry and learn under him; I mean, it was a no-brainer,” Merrill said. “He turns boys into men, and I want to be a part of that.”
Along with his desire to coach where he played, Merrill longs for his players to be smart, which includes players planning their at-bats. The Wichita native would like an acute mental approach to each and every at-bat, including incorporating goals and knowing specific pitches to look for.
From there, the mechanics of baseball take over. It will be a process at fall practices and scrimmages for hitters to work on throwing their hands at the baseball.
Helping streamline the developmental process of hitters will be the Rapsodo, an analytic device that will keep track of bat speed, exit velocity, the rotation of the ball and how far baseballs would end up in a ballpark; Bluetooth technology then uploads the analytics to iPads. Merrill said he will also use video to show players the adjustments they need to make on particular pitches.
“My philosophy is they have to see it, then they have to feel it, to fix it,” Merrill continued.
Another philosophy is to continue the arduous grind.
“With these guys, we want to instill hard work; I think that is something that never goes unnoticed,” Merrill commented. “Hitters, we want them to be short to the baseball. Pitchers, we want them to have repeatable mechanics that can get downhill and finish.”
Smith, meanwhile, has been a best friend of Murry’s for 34 years, when the longtime manager first started his coaching stint at NCCC. He has also frequently been a mentor for NCCC sports programs on and off in the same time-span, along with his duties as Vice President of Operations. Coaching-wise, Smith, 66, has suited up to be an actual assistant coach in 2003, 2012 and 2013.
He is also the college’s “official unofficial” photographer.
While the Fort Scott native doesn’t have any experience as a baseball player from the high school level on — he played little league baseball in Chicago — his know-how for America’s pastime has grown during his time spent with NCCC. It also helps that Smith has an amiable personality.
Smith — using his knowledge of baseball and experience in relationship-building with hundreds of baseball players in the NCCC program — wishes to use his mentoring skills from being a husband and father to properly navigate players on the nebulous line of success and failure, on and off the field.
“Why I really like being a part of the program is because of what he (Murry) taught them to become, which is men,” Smith said. “He teaches them how to do things right, and it’s more than tuck your shirt in, it’s treating people right. Teach them how to study, realizing that 1 out of 3,000 guys are going to make it there (the Major Leagues). So that’s not all of our guys. We’ve got to teach them how to be husbands and fathers and friends. Those are the kind of things that I try to instill in them, too — try whatever life lessons I’ve got and pass them on.”
Murry has confidence that both of his new coaches will get the job done.
“With Josh, we are trying to groom him into being a head coach someday, so we are trying to get him on both sides of the ball, pitching and hitting. He’s kind of doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. He’s got lots of hats for baseball because he’s so smart — from analytics to the website,” Murry said. “As far as Ben, we’ve known each other forever, he’s been around the field forever. He knows how we do things. Things need fixed around the field, he’s your guy. A drill needs ran and we’re out of coaches, he’s your guy. He’s just Mr. Dependable and that’s a great thing to have around.”
Merrill and Smith will test their coaching experience for the first time in the first game of the 2020 season on Feb. 15 versus Northeast Nebraska Community College.