Nogales baseball coach approaching 600 wins
In the dream scenario of all fantasy endings, is there a better script than the possibility of the Nogales High School baseball team running the table to win the Valle Vista League crown and finish on a magical run that ends with a CIF-Southern Section title?
Winning nine in a row to close out the season not only would give veteran coach John Romano his first CIF-SS title, but he would celebrate his 600th coaching victory in his 35th year of coaching the Nobles in a championship game.
It's a question you probably shouldn't pose to an old-school, no-nonsense guy like Romano, especially in a sport where superstitions are serious stuff.
"That's too big to process, way too big," Romano said. "Where do you get that stuff from? I'm just trying to process Northview on Wednesday. They're up next."
But even Romano, who coached legendary alum Cecil Fielder and has been at Nogales since the 1970s, allowed himself a minute to play along.
"I told myself I'm going to coach two more years and retire when I'm 60," said Romano, who has a career record of 591-316-9. "But if it happened (winning No. 600 in a title game), I would probably walk away from the game forever.
"How do you coach after that?"
The reason you shouldn't bring up dream possibilities to a coach like Romano is for all his success, which includes several league titles and qualifying for the CIF-SS playoffs almost every season, is his teams haven't done very well in the postseason.
Nogales, a team usually comprised of neighborhood youths, has not advanced past the CIF-SS quarterfinals during his long tenure.
So, to suddenly ask Romano about championships, well, he has his thoughts on that.
"During a 19-year stretch in the Sierra League we made the playoffs 17 times," Romano said. "I've been to the quarters four times and I've had some great teams, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. I don't know how else you describe it. It wasn't meant to be. I guess I'm just the Gene Mauch of the San Gabriel Valley."
Mauch had more than 1,900 victories as a major league manager, but never won a league pennant, let alone the World Series.
Romano's watched Bishop Amat coach Andy Nieto, South Hills' Kevin Smith, Northview's Darren Murphy, Charter Oak's Tom Quinley, Glendora's Dan Henley and San Dimas' Mike Regan all win titles the past 10 years.
The success of his peers would make some longtime coaches like him bitter, but that's not how Romano digests it all.
"I'm sort of jealous and envious, I'm not afraid to say that," Romano said. "But don't get it wrong, I'm happy to watch my friends win CIF titles. I'm not (sour) about it.
"Anyone who wins a CIF title is special. I admire those guys for doing it because I've never done it.
"It doesn't wear on me like it used to, but you have to be honest with yourself, that's what you play for. To get your name in the record books for winning a title, that's special. Don't sell it short."
What area coaches admire about Romano, the winningest coach in East San Gabriel Valley history, is he's still Romano with or without a CIF-SS title.
He doesn't know what social media is. He still writes everything on a yellow legal pad, doesn't email or text and can't figure out how to use his printer.
But the man can flat-out coach baseball.
"He's a tremendous motivator and incredible teacher of the game," South Hills' Smith said. "Whether his teams are having a good year or a bad year, they're always fundamentally sound and his kids are prepared and compete.
"That's what I've always admired about Nogales players. They take on the mentality and personality of their head coach. They're fiery, they get in your face and they battle. Those are all traits of John Romano, and when you can get your kids to go to battle for you like that I don't care what your record is, you've done your job and he does it year in and year out."
Romano is a physical education teacher at Nogales, but his passion for baseball hasn't let up one bit.
"I love my job, I love teaching, but I don't get up in the morning because of P.E.," Romano said. "I don't mean this in a disrespectful way, but I get up in the morning to coach baseball and be with my players."
That honesty is what Nieto loves about Romano.
"Let's get this right. He's the dean of the San Gabriel Valley when it comes to baseball," Nieto said. "He does everything the right way.
"When I was coaching at USC and would talk to John about his players or talent in the area, you could count on him to be truthful. He never sugar-coated anything.
"That's a man I wouldn't have any problems playing for. He tells it like it is and gets the best out of what he has.
"And look, if you're making a list of the best anything when it comes to baseball in the San Gabriel Valley, you better have John at the top of those discussions."
Romano never thought he would approach 600 wins this season, not with a team that starts only two seniors. But his young group already has 18 wins with room to grow.
The Nobles, who started 0-3 and 1-4, went on a 17-game winning streak to break the school record of 15 in a row set in 1984 before finally losing to Baldwin Park on Friday for their first league loss.
"Someone asked me if Nogales is the real deal," Northview's Murphy said. "If you win 17 straight, you're the real deal."
The Nobles swept Covina earlier in league action, but the next two weeks decide it all.
Nogales (18-5, 7-1) will host Northview (14-5-1, 7-1) on Wednesday and play again Friday at Northview before finishing with a home-and-away series against San Dimas (14-7, 7-2) next week.
Nogales' 6-foot-2 junior pitcher Erik Gonzalez has verbally committed to San Diego State and is 7-2.
Junior shortstop Adrian Guzman is batting .379, junior Cole Martinez is hitting .402 and there are freshman standouts in utility infielder Anthony Guardado, hitting .403 with 19 RBIs, and freshman catcher Albert Lopez, hitting .390.
It's a team whose best years probably are ahead of it, but the Nobles want it now.
"I thought that we would win 18 or 19 games (this season), but I didn't know we would run off 17 in a row and be in this position," Romano said. "If someone told me we would be tied for first with two weeks left, I'd take our chances."
For obvious reasons, there are some who are not rooting for Romano to get his 600th win this season.
"Well, that would mean he beats us this week and I don't want that," Murphy joked. "But seriously, who wouldn't pull for a guy like (Romano) to win a title or go deep in the playoffs because he's meant so much to the Valley and to coaches like me coming up because he does it with who he has and never complains about not having the physically-gifted players, or a guy who throws in the 90s.
"For me personally, to be coaching as long as he has at the same place, to be near 600 wins, that's special. Some of us have CIF championships, but what he's doing and continues to do is beyond comparison."
Romano hasn't done it alone. Assistant Don Montanez has been with him 29 years, and after all this time it's the players, past and present, that make it worthwhile.
"I like being involved in everyone's life that played for me, that's where I get my enthusiasm," Romano said. "I love talking to former players and knowing how they're doing and when they come back to see how we're doing. That stuff drives me."
In all likelihood, Romano's 600th win probably will come in some meaningless spring tournament next March. But that's how it's always been for Romano — under the radar, and he's fine with that.
"I'm a guy who loves practice more than the games," Romano says. "When it (600) comes and if it comes, it's about the school, it's about my assistant Don Montanez, the past and present players. It's for all of them.
"It's been one great memory here. I wouldn't change it for anything."
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