New era dawns for Horizon baseball as Urlaub follows Kibler

Horizon Head Coach Jeff Urlaub (second from left) meets with players and a coach during a break in the action. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

For the first time in its history, the Horizon High School baseball team has changed coaches.

Jeff Urlaub has taken the reins as the school’s second head coach since it opened in 1980, following Arizona high school coach legend Eric Kibler. Horizon decided to let Coach Kibler go after he spent 38 years with the school, accumulating 806 wins.

Coach Kibler’s legacy also includes 20 region championships, six state championships and one national championship.

After the school announced Coach Kibler wouldn’t return for a 39th season, parents and community members fought for the school to keep him as coach. Ultimately, the school moved on to Coach Urlaub, one of Coach Kibler’s former players and the pitching coach.

Coach Urlaub had only praises for Coach Kibler, calling him a hall of fame coach and man as well as a legend who taught him the game and gave him his first coaching job.

“It’s 100 percent an honor to be the second coach in school history but it is a little bittersweet,” Coach Urlaub said. “He built this program from the ground up. The field’s named after him. It doesn’t feel like home without him.”

Coach Urlaub graduated from Horizon in 2005. He played collegiately at Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University before making it to minor league baseball in 2010. He bounced around the minors for six years before his career ended in 2016.

Husky baseball players are familiar with Coach Urlaub as he’s been with the team for several years as a pitching coach. That transition from being an assistant to head coach was an adjustment for the players because, as Coach Urlaub described it, he was no longer “the cool coach.” Coach Urlaub said this transition was easy for the majority of the players.

“For a couple of them, it took a couple of times where they had to understand it wasn’t the appropriate time and they learned,” he said.

“They’re kids and you get what you get with them but once they finally realized the balance I was looking for, and they understood that balance, it was a real easy adjustment.”

Senior Kody Huff pitches the ball during a recent game against Pinnacle. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Following a legend

When it comes to following Coach Kibler’s legacy, senior and Stanford commit Kody Huff said, and fellow senior Collin Demas agrees, there’s no one better than Coach Urlaub.

“He’s a graduate of Horizon, he played professional baseball and he’s been around the program for a couple of years,” Huff said. “He knows this class really well. It’s been great to have him around. He’s seen us come up through the ranks from freshman all the way up to varsity.”

It wasn’t only Huff who was happy for an in-house coaching change. Coach Urlaub said many of the seniors expressed worry a new coach would change too much of the program, leading to a senior year in transition.

Growing up in the program and then coaching in it, Coach Urlaub said what Coach Kibler established means a lot to him and he has no plans on changing it.

“My job is not to take over this program and put my own stamp on it,” he said. “Coach Kibler built the foundation and the tradition of this program and it’s my job, not only as an alumni player but as a coach, to not change that.”

This means Coach Urlaub will continue similar practice schedules, the team-first mentality and the championship attitude. There will be, however, a few changes regarding what Coach Urlaub calls “newer school baseball.”

He is referring to philosophies and positioning he learned during his time as a professional. Other than that, he’ll try to mirror Coach Kibler.
“When he built this program for 38 years, what do you change?” Coach Urlaub said.

“What do you change with the excellence in this? I would be doing a disservice to him along with the kids if I came in and say ‘Ok, this is what it’s going to be. We’re going to change everything. I don’t believe in any of it,’ but it’s not true. Clearly, for 38 years it worked and I’m not going to change something that’s not broken.”

With the change, Coach Urlaub said he initially was nervous about how Coach Kibler would take it. He said Coach Kibler was supportive and offered help and advice whenever he needed it.

Coach Urlaub has taken advantage of that because Coach Kibler was “such a mentor” to him.

Three lessons stick out to Coach Urlaub from his time as a player for Coach Kibler that he hopes he can teach his players. The first is the team-first mentality and focusing on the team rather than individual accomplishments. The second is hard work.

The third was developing character away from the diamond. This means working hard in the classroom and at academics. Coach Urlaub requires Cs or better instead of the minimum Ds requirement.

“If they don’t achieve that (standard), then I don’t trust them on a baseball field,” he said.

Overall, Coach Urlaub hopes to develop players into good community members and family members who are respectful to others.

Senior Tony Sortino, Junior Sam Buchowski and senior Kody Huff break a huddle during a brief break in play. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

A new age

The 2019 season is underway and Coach Urlaub has had several games as head coach. So far, the players seem to have responded to the change well.

“Everyone trusts him and what his vision is for this year,” Huff said. “He’s super personable with our guys. He’s a pretty tough guy to have to live up to the coach before him. He has a lot of expectations from the school, the parents, the community and he’s taken those in stride really well.”

In early 2018, doctors diagnosed Demas with Leukemia, to which the entire school community rallied behind him. Demas was a pitcher as well as playing infield prior to the diagnosis.

While Demas went through treatment, Coach Urlaub said he would regularly visit him.

Horizon Head Baseball Coach Jeff Urlaub walks back to the dugout between innings. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

“He tried to stop by as much as possible and I felt a really close relationship with him,” Demas said. “For me to come back and have him just know what I’ve been through and what I can and can’t do, it really helps because he’s really understanding of everything.”

Social media posts in August spread quickly of Demas’s cancer going into remission. This was a proud moment for Coach Urlaub.

“One of the best phone calls I’ve ever received wasn’t getting this job, it was the phone call from (Demas) saying, ‘Coach, I’m cancer free. I want to get out and I want to play baseball,’” Coach Urlaub said.

Demas got back on the diamond in the team’s 11-2 win over Cactus Shadows High School Friday, March 1. Though he didn’t record a hit as a pinch hitter, he said it felt great to be back.

“I was really nervous at first but it was just really great to be back,” Demas said.

Coach Urlaub described Demas as a fighter, an inspiration and a “hero.”

While Demas was going through treatment, Coach Urlaub said he would still come to the diamond, against doctors’ wishes at times, to watch his teammates play and be supportive.

“That shows a lot about his character and a lot about what we want our program to resemble,” Coach Urlaub said.

It’s this type of relationship that Coach Urlaub hopes to establish with his players during his time as head coach.

“I think that really helps build the trust of these kids with us,” Coach Urlaub said. “Everything we’ve gone through in our life, they’re either going to go through it now or some point later on.

“If we can help them to prepare for that, (then) we’ve done a good job.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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