Baseball

AW coach Mark Nell used baseball as teaching tool, created juggernaut

AW coach Mark Nell used baseball as teaching tool, created juggernaut

Mark Nell utilized baseball as a vehicle to steer the direction of young lives while building one of the area’s preeminent programs at Anthony Wayne.

The Generals’ general has stepped away after guiding the AW program for 21 seasons.

Nell, 60, amassed a 443-163 record at Anthony Wayne. His teams won six Northern Lakes League titles, 14 sectional championships, six district titles, and one regional title.

“Baseball was my vehicle for me in my career,” Nell said. “I was able to use it to give life lessons to kids.”

Nell, who announced his retirement last weekend, said the outpouring of support from fellow coaches and former players has been overwhelming.

“I’m very proud that we were consistently competing. We wanted to win,” he said. “But I’m most proud of something that doesn’t have anything to do with wins and losses. I love hearing from Travis, who is a doctor, and Matt, who is a lawyer, and Brad, who is a successful construction manager, and Andy, who is the best father in the world.

“These guys are successful in what they are doing. That makes me feel good. Maybe through the game of baseball, I taught them to compete to the best of their ability, to find that edge to be the best … and helped guide them to be successful. I’m hearing from all these people, and I’m smiling.”

In 13 of his 21 seasons, Nell’s team won 20 or more games.

“We wanted to be one of the programs in northwest Ohio that people looked up to … we played the game the right way, we acted the right way,” Nell said.

Nell’s first teams went 10-4, 6-8, 10-4, 8-6, and 10-4 in the NLL before breaking through for the league title in 2006 with a 12-2 record. That team also won a Division I district title, and beat powerhouse Start for the first time.

“Those kids were so gritty and hard-nosed. They liked each other so much,” Nell said. “I still see them to this day running around together. They’re best friends. I had more talented teams than them, but they were connected. That group changed the mindset of the program.”

Miguel Flores, who was a member of the 2006 team, congratulated Nell on his terrific run.

“Some of my best memories still go back to 2006 even after all I’ve accomplished in life,” Flores said on Twitter. “Proud to have played a small part in the AW program you built. Wishing you and your family nothing but the best. Cheers, Coach!”

Longtime Perrysburg coach Dave Hall, who coached against Nell for all 21 seasons, said the pair formed a unique bond.

“Mark is a good friend. Two to three times a year for two to three hours a day we were fierce rivals,” Hall said. “He made me a better coach, and I hope I made him work harder.”

Hall, who is in his 35th season at Perrysburg, had a remarkably even rivalry with Nell. The programs played each other 46 times. In NLL tilts, the teams were 20-20 against each other. In six postseason tournament games, the programs went 3-3 against each other.

“Mark is one of the most intense and competitive coaches,” Hall said.

In the last meeting between the friends on May 18, the programs had an epic battle for the NLL title as No. 5 ranked AW got a 10-7 victory in nine innings against third-ranked Perrysburg.

“His teams were fundamentally sound, hustled, and competed every pitch of the game,” Hall said.

In his final season, Anthony Wayne (24-5 overall) finished the season ranked No. 4 in the state, reached the district semifinals, and won the NLL title (13-1). Nell said he stepped down because of health concerns.

“There are some unknowns that I have to go through, and there could be some time that I might need to take time away that would not be fair to the program,” he said. “I just have to get my health in shape. I think I’m going to be OK.”

Anthony Wayne athletic director John Snyder said one of Nell’s most lasting impacts is the improvements made to the baseball facility at the school, which has become one of the area’s best diamonds.

“While that facility is beautiful and top-notch, it was also paid for primarily through team fund-raising. Mark and his program were able to go out and work hard for those facility-boosting monies,” Snyder said.

“Whether it was the brick dugouts, bucket seating, windscreen, scoreboard, even the foul poles … all of that was purchased through program-wide fund-raising. The program worked extremely hard to produce a quality product on the field and provide a lasting memory when you came to a baseball game at Anthony Wayne. He left his program in better condition than he found it.”

Another fellow longtime NLL coach, Springfield’s Dave Whitmire, called Nell the best of the best.

“I have great respect for the way he did things from top to bottom in his program. He preached it was all about the team,” Whitmire said. “He built a complete program at AW, and certainly will be known as one of northwest Ohio’s greatest coaches.”

Whitmire, who traveled in the same baseball circles as Nell for 30 years, said he liked his managerial style.

“I always told our players to watch how the AW kids approached things,” Whitmire said.

Coach’s roots

Nell grew up a fan of the Big Red Machine, the exceptional Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s.

“I could name them all. Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion. We would catch a bus downtown for a quarter and buy two-dollar nose bleeds. But we’d end up in the box seats behind home plate before the end of it,” he said. “I started when I was 3 or 4 years old, knothole baseball in Cincinnati. My dad was the coach. He was one of the founders of youth baseball there. I never did not know baseball.”

Nell played at the University of Cincinnati as an outfielder. “That was a dream come true. We played in a great conference,” he said. He then played two years of semi-pro ball but ultimately saw his career shortened due to a herniated neck that required surgery.

A transition to coaching was natural, with his first stop at his high school alma mater, Cincinnati Princeton.

“I always wanted to be coach. Mostly, I wanted to be my dad,” he said. “I got into education because I felt like I wanted to do something with kids and baseball is my vehicle.”

Nell, who will remain as a health and physical education at the AW junior high, was an assistant at Bowling Green State University under Danny Schmitz for 11 years before he took over the program at AW in 2001.

“Danny Schmitz is one of the best people in the entire world. I learned from the best,” Nell said. “He gave me an opportunity as a high school coach with no college experience. And we were together for about 10 years. We had some really good teams under his leadership. His mentorship was a difference-maker in how to handle kids. He taught me patience.”

Nell spent one season at Eastwood, and left when a teaching and coaching position opened up in the Anthony Wayne district. Nell credited former AW AD, the late Paul Holan, for hiring him.

The two coaches that led the AW program before him, Mike Campbell and Cory Miller, played for Nell at BGSU. The seniors had gone through three coaches in as many years when Nell took over in 2001.

“Those guys did a good job, but there just wasn’t any continuity, which isn’t easy on the kids,” Nell said. “It took a while before we were competitive. We tried to change the mindset.”

Nell said from the start he created the most difficult non-league schedule for his teams. The team made annual spring trips to Tennessee and South Carolina.

The Generals reached the Division I state title game in 2018, where they lost to Powell Olentangy Liberty. AW went 27-5 that season.

“We wanted to play against the best — Start, Defiance, Bryan. I think that set the stage for the program being one that other teams looked forward to competing against,” he said. “[Eventually] when we would lose, sometimes other teams would do a dog-pile because they beat Anthony Wayne. I told the guys to look at that, other teams wanted to knock you down.”

Nell said he shies away from the term “old-school” or hard-nosed coach to describe his style.

“I’ve always been demanding. I demand effort. I was just always expecting them to give me their best effort,” Nell said. “What I liked about that is the opposing team gave us their best effort because of who we were. We played the game the right way, win, lose or draw.”

Family connections

Nell said when he had his two children, it changed his coaching style.

“Ninety-five percent of my parents were wonderful parents, completely supportive,” he said. “You’re not going to make everyone happy in any field. I may have come across as a guy who was not that approachable, but I’d always discuss concerns. When a kid left the program, I always questioned myself. I took it very hard.”

Nell said the most difficult part of coaching was cut day.

“I tried to keep more kids than I needed to. If the kid could figure out his role, they would work hard and they would benefit from it,” he said.

Nell said his fellow coaches, especially in the NLL, provided a sense of community.

“The NLL is a fantastic league and very competitive,” he said. “Dave Hall and I would not like each other three days out of the year. But then we’d go out and have breakfast the next morning. The baseball world is a great fraternity.”

Nell, who lives in Haskins with his wife Tawn, said his family sacrificed a lot. His son Jordan played for Nell at AW, and later coached alongside him there. His daughter Maddi was a standout volleyball player at Otsego.

“My daughter grew up on the baseball field. She was lining the field the day she learned to walk. I got to coach my son and then I coached with him,” Nell said.

“You can feel your kids within you physically. After we beat Perrysburg this year and clinched the title, I told my son I could still hear his heartbeat.”

Maddi Nell, who now plays at Purdue University Fort Wayne, is Otsego’s career record holder in assists.

“I am so proud of you,” Maddi wrote to her father on Twitter. “The most amazing man that I know. Here’s to a new chapter!”

Nell said he has left the door open to returning to the diamond.

“I will be on a baseball field doing something. I can see me helping someone out,” he said. “I could even do some groundskeeping stuff. I want to stay around the game. I just need to take some stress out of my life.”

He called baseball a fraternity.

“I’ve received thousands of messages from former players, fellow coaches. It’s been overwhelming. I don’t know how I can respond to all those people. More than the Ws and losses, it’s a humbling experience. I didn’t realize how many people relied on me and respected the things I did,” he said. “I’m so appreciative.”

 

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