Q&A with Dave Lafferty

Seneca High School, Tabernacle, New Jersey

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.2, February 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1402/qalafferty.htm

In the spring of 2005, the Seneca High School Golden Eagles took the field as the two-year-old school’s first varsity baseball team. Though they had played two seasons as a junior varsity squad, the team had no seniors or players with varsity experience, and Head Coach Dave Lafferty didn’t know what to expect. But on opening day, junior right hander Ryan Brecko threw a perfect game, and Seneca went on to a 30-3 record in its first year and the South Jersey Group 2 state title game, where the team lost 3-1.

It was also the first year of coaching varsity baseball for Lafferty. Then 50 years old and a guidance counselor at the school, he had been a J.V. baseball coach and a head high school basketball coach, and remains Associate Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Rowan University, where he helped coach the Profs to a Division III national championship in 1996.

In this interview, Lafferty discusses his coaching style, his points of emphasis for building the Seneca program, and how his other jobs make him a better baseball coach.

CM: What were the keys to last season’s success?

Lafferty: It’s simple: I had very, very good players. Nobody wins that many games without good players. The talent was there—I just tried not to screw things up. In all my years of coaching, this is clearly the most unusual group of kids I’ve ever encountered. It’s because of their boyish passion for the game, the respect they showed for the game, and the humility they showed when they had success. I’ve been around a lot of teams, and these guys just loved being around baseball and each other.

Is that something you instilled as a coach or did it come naturally?

I felt it came naturally. But having coached a long time, I do realize that some folks in the profession can suck the life out of kids. I think I have learned to not do that. I also try to make practices very enjoyable: a place where you make your jokes but also do your work and accomplish your goals.

How do you straddle the line between fun and focused?

One of the first things I said to the team was, “It’s okay to make mistakes. I’m not going to yell at you if you make a physical error in the field. I’m not going to yell at you if you throw to the wrong base, but we’re going to talk about it.”

With no seniors on the team, where did you look for leadership?

With this group it kind of took care of itself. We had two kids who were generally considered to be our best players, and they gravitated toward leading on the field. Then we had a couple of kids with spectacular personalities who provided vocal leadership. The other kids just fell right in line. It was an interesting dynamic—it was understood that if you were on the team, you were expected to never fool around during practice. They policed themselves pretty darn well.

How did you develop the blueprint for your program?

The first thing I wanted to do was make a big, big deal about being “the first team ever.” For example, there’s a huge 24 x 36 team photo that hangs in our trophy case along with a wooden plaque. I also posted the first lineup card under glass and displayed the balls from the first hit, homerun, pitch thrown, and last out of the first game—in which our pitcher threw a perfect game. I told people that even if we finished 4-30, I was going to do that.

How did you deal with rising expectations as the team kept winning?

I wrote a certain word on the chalkboard in the locker room every day: Humility. I wanted them to be humble and thankful for what they have. And this group of guys always were. I’m sure the expectations are going to be high next season, but mine will be very simple and the same as they were last year and the year before: Act right, be on time, and be humble.

How do you keep all players involved in the game?

I made a concerted effort to play 13 to 14 guys every single game. If you know that you’re probably going to get in the game, whether it’s an at-bat, playing an inning in the field, or pinch running, your head is going to stay in the game.

What did you tell your team after losing in the state final?

I said, “I know you’re disappointed today, but when you look back on this you’ll realize that you did something few others have done. You guys took a first-year baseball program to the state final. And you lost to the best pitcher in the state.” Vin Mazzaro, who was later selected in the third round (101st overall) by the Oakland Athletics in the Major League Baseball draft, threw 94 mph with pinpoint control. I said, “There is no shame in losing, let’s move on.”

After being away from this level for so long, what was the hardest thing to get used to?

I had spent the last 13 years working with men between the ages of 19 and 29. Coming back and working with 14- and 15-year-olds, you are reminded of the physical differences and the lack of life experience and confidence in young players.

Is your coaching style the same for basketball and baseball?

I think so. I have very high expectations in three areas: acting right, being on time, and making the right choices. I have attempted to create a situation where they are comfortable with me. They are even comfortable making fun of me, because that’s part of our give-and-take relationship. As long as they’re on time and act right, there aren’t any problems. They know what to expect from me, and where I draw the line.

On two occasions I had a kid mouth off to an umpire last season. I took him out of the game. I did not yell and scream at him or make a scene. I just pulled him over and said, “Come out of the game and apologize to that umpire right now.” He did, and all the guys saw that and took notice.

In our first year, our best player showed up five minutes late one day and I just said to him, “You’re late. Was there an accident? Is everybody okay? All right, start running and don’t stop until I get tired.” The other players saw that and knew they have to be on time. I don’t think we had any players show up late for any practices last year. And when kids make errors, and they will, I don’t throw stuff, I don’t yell and scream, and I don’t publicly humiliate them. As a result, we have a level of trust.

How does what you’ve learned coaching basketball translate to baseball?

I started coaching basketball as an assistant under John Giannini, who is now the head coach at LaSalle University. He was very much an attention-to-detail guy, and when I walk into practice I have the entire two hours planned out. We practice roughly 44 times a year, and I have a general framework for an indoor and an outdoor workout for each of those days. If it were to rain on May 1, I already have an idea of what I want to be doing indoors or outdoors that day.

What’s your advice to young coaches about reaching their players?

You must be patient. You cannot impart all of your wisdom and knowledge in a week. What your players will learn from you, besides the game, is planning, preparation, and patience.

How does being a guidance counselor affect your coaching?

I’m more aware of personal stuff that goes on in players’ lives than classroom teachers can be. Most of the guys feel comfortable coming in and talking to me, so I’m aware of the distractions they face. For instance, there are some kids who got very upset because they got B’s in advanced physics. The goal then is to get them out on the field and make practice a two-and-a-half-hour refuge from physics. I am also able to notice when a guy is having trouble concentrating, maybe missing a cut off man or not aware of a situation.

Do you do anything out of the ordinary during practices?

I usually close with what I call a “Moment of Zen,”which I got from “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. I think it’s really important that as a coach you’re serious about what you do, but don’t take yourself too seriously. For instance, I once told this story: Late in the 2003 season, I was at the Vet, and the Phillies were playing the Florida Marlins, who would go on to win the World Series. The score is 3 to 1 in the top of the ninth. Juan Pierre is on first base and Ivan Rodriguez is at bat. Rodriguez bunts and moves the runner to second. Then Mike Lowell comes up next and singles home the run and they go ahead, 4-1. The Phillies scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth and lost, 4-3. I’ll say to the team, “Who won the game for the Marlins?” A kid who’s thinking will say, “Ivan Rodriguez.” Exactly. A Hall of Fame catcher bunted and when asked why afterward, he said, “Because it was time to win the game.” Then I’ll tell the team, “Okay guys that’s it, let’s get out of here.”

What else do you do to make players look forward to practice?

We have a game they love to play called Two Pitch. I give each player two pitches thrown with a high, slow-pitch softball-style arc. I give up some long home runs and they love it. There’s also plenty of trash talking. I have one kid, and he’s one of my better players, who hasn’t gotten a hit off me in two years. So I’ll be on the mound shouting, “I own you! You can’t touch me!”and those kinds of things. And probably every two weeks we’ll play home run derby. I always save those games for after we do all of our work.

Your assistant Brian Gibney had five future big-leaguers in 25 years as a head coach at another school. Is it intimidating having such an experienced assistant?

Nah. If I were 25, it might get to me. But I’m 50 now, with 29 years in coaching, and I want to see things done right. I’m not worried about who gets the credit.

What is your advice to coaches just starting a program?

First, you have to be secure with yourself as a coach. If you’re starting a program, you’re probably going to have a losing season. And if you have a losing season in the society that we live in, in this day and age, you are going to be criticized. You have to expect that and can’t allow your insecurities to be shown to the players or lash out at them. They’re not trying to lose and they’re not trying to make mistakes. I had it in my mind that as long as I got effort and attitude, I’d be happy. So I would say to a young coach, ‘Make sure you’re getting effort and attitude, and have a five-year plan.’