After finishing atop several polls in 2017, Joe Spano is looking to continue to keep his Mercyhurst Lakers among the Division II elite. Already the school’s all-time wins leader, Spano is currently in his 19th season at the helm. Ten Lakers have been drafted under Spano’s watch, including Dan Altavilla, 2014 fifth rounder who made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in just his second full season in professional baseball.
Here’s what makes his program tick:
Inside Pitch: You were only an assistant coach for a couple years before you became a head coach. What did you learn about that experience?
Joe Spano: I was fortunate to play for Irish O’Reilly at Lewis University my last two years of college. I was a student at Boston University when the program was dropped in 1995. I was very upset about transferring until I received a phone call from Coach O’Reilly. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to
play for such an incredible coach and national power. I learned everything I could and he has been a mentor ever since. I have modeled the Mercyhurst program as much as I could from what I learned at Lewis.
IP: Who are some other mentors you’ve had along the way?
JS: Another great influence has been Joe Jordano at Pitt. Coach Jordano was the head coach at Mercyhurst for 10 years and really put the program on the map. He’s an Erie native and he’s been able to guide me every step of the way. I have never been too proud to take advice from others and in addition to these two great influences, I am blessed to be part of the ABCA for the last 20 years. The information I have learned from my peers has been so helpful, and every sport should be so lucky to have a coaches’ association this incredible.
IP: If you had to do it all over again, what would you do less of?
JS: If had to do things over I wish I could have told a younger me to calm down a little, I always worried about things that were probably not as important as they seemed at the time. I wish I could have enjoyed the earlier years as much as I do now.
IP: What are some must-haves when it comes to players you recruit?
JS: The must-haves are high character people who care about their teammates. With our climate, we also need mentally tough athletes. We play in some cold and nasty weather, far from what you envision baseball to be, and we are up front about that. We need athletes that know what they are getting into and in some ways, thrive in it. We know that scouts will come and see us and our guys will get a lot of exposure. Scouts love how mentally tough our guys are, they love
watching games where our guys are not affected by weather at all.
IP: It can be a challenge to keep assistant coaches at smaller schools that are highly successful. What are some ways you look for assistants when you have to hire someone new?
JS: The best way to keep an assistant is to hire your brother! I couldn’t ask for a more loyal assistant than that. It helps that he’s a genius and he’s not afraid to critique me or anyone else on our staff. He’s the most objective person I know and this program wouldn’t be what it is without him. As far as GA’s and part-time assistants, it is really tough to keep them around, for obvious reasons. I think your goal as a head coach should be to place them at better jobs. If you’re doing that, then you have a really good chance at continuing to attract quality assistant coaches.
IP: What’s the best thing you do to keep your practices organized?
JS: We always go in with a plan, but I think what we do best is audible if we need to. The best way to stay organized is to prepare for things that may not go as expected. We always have to work around our uncertain climate, we may be indoors one day and outdoors the next. Preparation is always the key. We also like to break practice up into groups, similar to individuals. We would rather have our players spend less time at team practice and get more one-on-one attention with us, even if that means the coaches will have to spend extra hours at the field.
IP: What are your favorite team building methods?
JS: Because team chemistry is so vital to success, I believe team building is an ongoing process. We like to have fun, we like practical jokes and most importantly, we give every athlete personal attention. If you give the last guy on the bench the same personal attention as the all-conference player, you will
see the team come together. The athletes will know you care about them as people and not just baseball players. In turn they will care about and gain trust in each other.
We put a lot of emphasis on making our alumni game a very special day. It’s a great way for past and current players and their families to bond.
We also preach servant leadership: our athletes are expected to help each other as friends/mentors and serve our community through service hours each year. It’s hard to have just one favorite method for team building.
IP: What are some drills you have stuck with, or new drills that you really like?
JS: We do throwing progressions and defensive progressions every practice. Many of the defensive progressions are things I learned in grade school. They may seem basic and redundant, but they are the backbone of our defensive success. Every day we roll each other ground balls with bare hands, then with a flat glove, then with a normal glove. We bounce short hops, front hands and back hands. We start on our knees and work into a defensive stance. I have used many, many different drills through the years, but it’s hard to imagine going away from those fundamentals.
Photos courtesy of Mercyhurst Sports Information/Ed Milliard