Column: Hart's Jim Ozella sets example of how to coach in the age of uncertainty

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It takes a special talent these days to be a high school coach and not get fired if your team doesn’t win a championship. Seriously, some parents think teams should win titles every season. You have to be a grinder with thick skin and administrative backing to coach in 2024.

Luckily, for 25 seasons Hart High baseball had a coach who not only grinds but teaches and prepares players to take on the tasks of adulthood.

Jim Ozella is retiring whenever the Indians’ season comes to an end. His players gave him a Foothill League championship this past week, No. 9 in 25 seasons. Hart (21-5) will open in the Southern Section Division 2 playoffs on Thursday against Simi Valley. Whether the playoff run ends quickly or leads to a championship, he’ll sign off and prepare for his next full-time job as a grandfather.

As someone old enough to remember when Ozella came from Illinois in the fall of 1983 and got a job as baseball coach at Bishop Alemany, my impression was he’d stay for decades.

Except he left Bishop Alemany in 1994. “He’s got three kids. He wanted to feed those kids,” his former assistant Tim Browne said.

The man who went to Catholic schools eventually became a history teacher and baseball coach at Hart, where the youth programs in the Santa Clarita Valley are second to none and parents expect greatness from their kids and teams because baseball is beloved in the community. Before Ozella, Bud Murray and Frank Sanchez were part of Hart’s coaching lore.

For Ozella to keep doing what he does best year after year — teaching his players the game of baseball and life lessons while being embraced by the parents whether the team won or lost — that’s some old-school magic.

“Jim teaches in the classroom the same way he does on the field,” Browne said. “He wants kids to take ownership that they are their own best teacher and best coach and when to listen and when to seek help.”

Yes, Ozella has sent his share of players to the major leagues. He’s particularly excited about the Dodgers’ new ace, Tyler Glasnow, a Hart grad.

Yet his job review has never included a bonus for a player being called up to the majors or a demerit when someone comes up short. All he has tried to do is let his players develop at their own pace, prepare them for college, offer encouragement and advice, and always be there if anyone wants to talk. Alumni games are always filled because players think back and remember a positive experience playing baseball at Hart. His longevity is to be admired.

“Down through the years, I’ve tried to be honest,” he said.

Of course, not everyone can be happy. That comes with coaching and making decisions, including who gets to play. Yet Ozella’s commitment to teaching, integrity and passion for developing his players is real.

“I try to be me,” he said.

He’s your ultimate St. Louis Cardinals fan. His first book about his days as a kid playing baseball in a small town was just published, and it’s full of old-school vibes, which makes me wonder how he’s stayed in Southern California and thrived for so long.

He still sends text messages on results after games rather than use the new technology of GameChanger with an iPad. He’s one of those coaches who would be comfortable with a pencil sticking out of his ear. But in his classroom, he’s got two computers and a big-screen TV, so he’s adapted just like all good teachers have to do.

The best chance Hart had to win a Southern Section title was in 2015, a 3-1 loss to Huntington Beach in the Division 1 championship game. Jack Ralston was Hart’s star pitcher. He’d go on to UCLA and pitch briefly in the majors.

Ozella has made a huge impact and a difference in the lives of many. Sure he would love to go out with a Southern Section championship. He’ll do his best this week to put his players in position to succeed. That’s all a parent or player can ask for.

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