A new path: Ex-Horizon coach Eric Kibler forges new future in coaching baseball

Eric Kibler demonstrates the intricacies of the game of baseball to his 12U team. (Submitted photo)

Eric Kibler just isn’t the retiring type.

He’s not the type of guy who would spend his days on the golf course after an illustrious 38-year career as the founding baseball coach at Horizon High School. He needs purpose and after a year away from coaching, he’s found it again — this time with a younger crowd.

Mr. Kibler is the new owner of the Phoenix-based Arizona School of Baseball where he provides private baseball instruction and coaching. He is also coaching two 12U teams, called Blue Grit and Red Grit, that will begin competing this fall.

He chose this path because of his love for working with young baseball players and the game itself. He hopes to use this experience as a way to give back to the game he loves and help prepare the next generation of high school players.

In 2018, Horizon decided to fire Mr. Kibler despite his request for one more season to help in the transition. Many in the community voiced support, but ultimately, the school stuck to its decision.

Through his 38 years at Horizon, Mr. Kibler amassed 809 wins and coached 28 players to Major League Baseball and 200 to college. He also has three Team USA gold medals.

“It’s just something I think I was put on this earth to do,” he said. “I thank God that he’s given me some health and showed me the direction to do this and I think it’s what I’m best at. I’m not going to fix a car very well but I think I’m pretty good at what I do and I’m constantly trying to learn how to get better.”

Originally, Dave Hilton, a former MLB player, founded the School of Baseball but died in 2017. Mr. Kibler, who considered Mr. Hilton a close friend, said Mr. Hilton’s wife asked if he would take over the school to which he agreed.

With the new program, Mr. Kibler hopes to create an environment where the kids can learn to enjoy the game. His programs won’t be year-round and he plans to give his players about five months off a year to players to participate in other sports or have time away from the game.

“I think the most important thing for the kids is to play for the day,” Mr. Kibler said. “There’s so much emphasis on moving forward. High school kids play to get to college or high school kids play to go pro. I think they just need to enjoy where they’re at, at that time.”

In his new position, Mr. Kibler has crafted a team of coaches, many of whom are former Horizon players. Mr. Kibler’s new teams include several sons of former players and his grandson.

Tim Holman — a former Horizon player who assists Mr. Kibler in administrative roles with the teams — said he always hoped his son would have a chance to play for Mr. Kibler because he wanted him to learn from a man who influenced his life.

Mr. Holman said he wanted his son to learn the importance of character and he wanted an environment that wasn’t solely focused on winning, but rather developing young men. He believed Mr. Kibler was perfect for that job.

“Many of the lessons I learned from Coach Kibler, on the baseball field, were things that lasted me my whole life off the field in business meetings, with my own family and children,” he said. “It’s been an unbelievable experience and we’re only three weeks in.”

A new path

After learning Horizon would not bring back him, Mr. Kibler decided to take a year off to “sort things out” despite receiving offers at multiple levels to coach again. The aftermath of his departure from Horizon was not easy, he said.

Despite the difficulty, Mr. Kibler wanted to set an example for his former players.

“Kids are watching how you handle it and I wanted to handle it in a positive way, which I think I did, and still support them because they knew how devastating that was to me to not be able to coach them another year,” he said.

Arizona School of Baseball owner Eric Kibler. (Submitted photo)

He was never too far away as he offered to help newly-hired head coach Jeff Urlaub transition into the role this past spring. Horizon went on to win the 5A state championship in 2019.

During that year off, Mr. Kibler began working with his grandson, who he said started showing more interest in baseball. This piqued Mr. Holman’s interest.

Mr. Holman said he had conversations with Mr. Kibler as far back as spring of 2018 on what his future would look like regarding coaching. Mr. Holman, who was coaching his 12-year-old son’s team, invited Mr. Kibler out to his practices.

The times Mr. Kibler attended, Mr. Holman allowed him to take the lead in coaching on those days.

“Over a period of a few months, he was out being a coaching consultant for my other team, if you will, and I think he saw a vision like ‘hey, I really want to continue to coach. I see an avenue where I can coach my grandson and work with some of my alumni,’” Mr. Holman said.

The team’s first practice was on Aug. 19 but tryouts were ongoing throughout the summer. Mr. Holman estimated about 50-60 kids tried out for the teams.

Watching Mr. Kibler coach brought happiness to Mr. Holman. He fondly remembered seeing Mr. Kibler get invested in drills with the 12-year-olds as he threw batting practice to each boy and getting on his hands and knees to demonstrate a fielding drill.

“He still gets a lot of joy, he still has a lot of passion from coaching,” Mr. Holman said. “It’s just in his blood. It’s what he knows and so it’s been great to see a man of his age running the bases.”

While there is no difference with how he runs practices, Mr. Kibler said his approach to the children is much different. He says at this age, it’s important to create a funner environment where they can learn how to win as well as I how to fail and overcome it.

“They seem to been progressing in that very well,” he said. “I’m very happy with them.”

Eric Kibler leads his 12U team in drills. (Submitted photo)

Husky Nation

Another perk of Mr. Kibler’s return has been coaching alongside many former players.

In reminiscing, Mr. Kibler said he thought the most rewarding part of coaching was the relationships he built with players and coaches alike. So seeing former players come back and share their passions for the game has, Mr. Kibler hopes, led to a new kind of relationship.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful it’s been for me getting to know these guys a little bit better and they’re probably getting to know me more maybe as a friend or a peer — well not a peer because I’m a lot older than they are,” he said with a laugh.

That sentiment extends to the kids of former players as Mr. Kibler said he feels blessed to have that opportunity.

Mr. Kibler said he believes the familiarity of his coaching style puts parents minds at ease he won’t treat their kids any different than he treated them as players.

On the other side, Mr. Holman said a key point he wants his son to learn is that eventually, playing baseball will eventually come to an end and he hopes his son will look back at his playing time with fondness, like he did, and learn from those lessons, especially from Mr. Kibler.

One aspect Mr. Holman really likes is how Mr. Kibler plans to do grade checks throughout the season and he plans to do those in a personal way rather than calling a kid out in front of the team. Those checks, Mr. Holman said, will include the parents as well.

The fruits of Mr. Kibler’s coaching efforts have manifested in a tight-nit community that remains close long after the final inning of their senior season at Horizon. That community has shown through on Mr. Kibler’s newest adventure.

“We wanted to have that type of community,” he said. “They call it the Husky Nation and it really is. I think that’s the biggest accomplishment of the program is that we’ve created a community of players and people and parents that enjoy the experience.”

Eric Kibler, second from the right on the top row, with his coaches and players on the 12U team Grit. (Submitted photo)

Moving forward

It’s still early in the School of Baseball’s history but Mr. Kibler and the coaches have plans for the future.

Mr. Holman says the teams will compete in two tournaments a month through the United States Specialty Sports Association for each team as well as in the Scottsdale AZ Play Ball league, which is a Pony league, for 12 games.

Next year, Mr. Kibler plans to take the teams to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, for a 12U baseball event.

As for Mr. Kibler’s future, he’s happy with the new opportunity and believes his life is in a position where he can continue coaching for the foreseeable future.

“I always tell the kids as long as I can walk through the gates and I feel like I’m passionate about what I’m doing, I’m going to be there and I’ll continue to do it,” he said.

As long as Mr. Kibler is in the dugout, he will be teaching. The time for teaching, however, isn’t confined to the diamond as he offers some advice to parents of young athletes.

He hopes parents will see youth baseball for what it is: a chance to learn, to grow and to have fun. One lesson from his father, however, has always stuck with him.

“If there’s any advice I would give the parents on the ride home, it’s that the rule is give them a chance to bring the game up,” he said. “Otherwise, talk about something else or don’t talk about anything because some kids just don’t want to talk about it.

“I think that’s really good advice.”

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

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