Back where it began

RICHMOND – It had been seven years since Justin Richards was at the Jefferson Lake State Park baseball field.

“This place brings back a lot of good memories,” said Richards, a former Edison player who now coaches Johnstown-Monroe.

It only took about seven seconds for him to dismiss those feelings and focus on Saturday’s game with his Johnnies and the homestanding Wildcats.

“Once the first pitch was thrown,” Richards said, “it was game on.”

A 2003 Edison graduate, Richards has been the head coach at Johnstown-Monroe since 2011, compiling a 33-32 record. He and Wildcats coach Mike Collopy had been trying to schedule an appropriate date for this homecoming game, of sorts, for a while.

“The only hang up was the far distance,” Collopy said, as Johnstown is located just outside of Newark – a 135-mile, two hour and 30 minute drive from Richmond. “They’re a good team and he’s doing a great job with them.

“Playing this game just made sense. I’m glad it worked out.”

The Wildcats downed the Johnnies, 6-3, behind a strong pitching performance from Clay Woodward.

The junior went the distance, striking out nine as Edison remained unbeaten at 5-0.

“Clay is a bulldog,” Collopy said. “He’s a competitor. There’s nothing he’s afraid of and that’s the type of player we want in any game.”

Similar attributes could be bestowed to Richards when describing his playing days.

He was a four-year letterman who played nearly every position. Richards earned All-State and All-Ohio Valley Athletic Conference honors and his high school batting average still ranks in the top 10 all-time in the state.

“Justin was one of, if not the, best all-around player to ever come through Edison,” said Collopy, a former assistant under the legendary Bill Beattie.

In his junior season, Richards led the Wildcats to the Division II state championship, which was an eventual 6-1 loss to Tallmadge. Prior to that, though, Richards started the postseason by tossing a one-hitter. In a district game he nearly spun a perfect game.

Currently, Richards’ Johnnies are 4-3 on the year. After the Edison game, they stayed in the area and beat Toronto, 6-4.

“His attitude has definitely transcended to his team,” Collopy said. “They play hard, aggressive and smart. “That’s exactly the type of player he was, too.”

Richards earned a scholarship to play collegiately at West Virginia. He played mainly third base for the Mountaineers and was named the team’s Freshman of the Year for the 2004 season.

After sporting a .277 batting average with two home runs, six doubles and 13 RBIs in two seasons, Richards transferred and finished his playing career at Ashland.

“I just wanted the opportunity to play on a team that actually wanted to compete,” Richards said of his decision to move on to a Division II school.

The move paid off as the Eagles advanced to the 2006 World Series, finishing fourth in the nation.

“Baseball has been a big part of my life ever since I was a kid,” Richards said. “I played D-I and have so many great memories from college.

“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and what better way to give back to the sport than to share the knowledge I have with a group of kids. Being able to coach and have a career, I’ve been very fortunate.”

At Johnstown-Monroe, Richards is also a physical education teacher. He previously taught at Columbus Montessori School and was an assistant baseball coach at Lucas High School, near Mansfield.

He gladly admits that his former coaches, Beattie and Collopy, have influenced his mentoring style.

“They’ve had such an impact on me and influenced me for all the years that I was playing for them,” Richards said. “They give you so much information that you don’t really fully absorb when you’re a kid, but it makes sense now.

“I’m trying to get these guys molded into sound baseball players and harness their love of the game. I’m also trying to get them to become quality young men with good manners, who are ready to help others and lead their peers into the future.”

He hopes it won’t be another seven years before he can return to his old stomping grounds.

“It was a little weird when I first walked in,” Richards said. “I was used to being in the other dugout.”

Tentatively, Edison and Johnstown-Monroe are scheduled to play in Licking County next year.