Man of character: Saguaro baseball coach Joe Muecke teaches higher purpose

Saguaro Baseball Coach Joe Muecke watches from the dugout at a home game. (Photo courtesy of Megan Nelson and Bryan Hardy)

When faced with a decision on how to use a $500 voucher for new school uniforms, Saguaro High School Baseball Coach Joe Muecke recommended a different approach.

Sports Addix, a sponsor of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, awarded Saguaro the voucher and Athletic Director Kraig Leuschner asked his coaches for suggestions.

The coaches had several requests but a thought from Coach Muecke, who doubles as a special education teacher for students with autism, stood out: uniforms with puzzle pieces on them for an Austism awareness game.

“I was like wow. A really awesome, unique, creative approach to spend $500,” Mr. Leuschner said. “In typical Coach Muecke fashion, it wasn’t about his team, it wasn’t about him. It was about let’s take the $500 that was given to us and let’s create awareness in a cause.”

It’s moments like this why Mr. Leuschner decided to nominate Coach Muecke for the AIA Champions Coach of the Year award. The organization will announce its winners at the AIA’s Champions Luncheon in May.

The Saguaro baseball team in their Autism Awareness Game jerseys. (Photo courtesy of Megan Nelson and Bryan Hardy)

The AIA awards these recognitions annually to “outstanding Arizona high school students, teachers, coaches, administrators and schools for outstanding achievements, on and off the field,” according to its website.

Mr. Leuschner said Coach Muecke deserves recognition for the unseen efforts he puts in to developing his players into “men of character,” a mantra Coach Muecke developed when he started as head coach six years ago.

“That’s really easy to create a nice slogan that makes you sound good but it’s another thing to walk that path,” he said.

“He’s been very, very clear with his teams, as long as he has been in that position, about giving back, about being a servant, about the importance of community more than just the game of baseball. He’s a big life lesson teacher but he doesn’t teach it by speaking at kids. He walks with them through a journey of servanthood.”

Mr. Leuschner summed up Coach Muecke’s coaching as putting high character above all but still finding balance between high character and high competitiveness.

Coach Muecke described the nomination as humbling and an honor because he appreciates the recognition among the “great coaches” across the state.

“To be recognized as one of those coaches is truly an honor,” he said.

‘Men of Character’

Coach Muecke has coached baseball at Saguaro for 16 years, starting as an assistant coach under former head coach Ryan Dyer. He became head coach in 2014.

He has a 99-79 overall record — as of Tuesday, April 23 — and his teams have made the playoffs four times in those six years. Coach Muecke credits his assistants Cody and David Fortney for their efforts in growing the team and being “men of character.”

As an assistant, Coach Muecke coached a team that won back-to-back state championships. It is this type of success Coach Muecke wants to continue as part of the program’s tradition, but he also wants to enhance the team’s character off the field.

“We are in the central part of Scottsdale where I think as we grow athletes, we also have a responsibility for these student-athletes to recognize how they can impact more so than just the athletics,” he said.

“That’s what you try to expand for these young men, is how powerful their reach is by being in other peoples’ lives, giving up their time, energy, Those are resources that are invaluable.”

Coach Muecke has many of his players volunteer in the community, in particular with the Miracle League, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities and special health care needs play baseball.

Saguaro Baseball Coach Joe Muecke comes out to talk to senior captain Clay Randall. (Photo courtesy of Megan Nelson and Bryan Hardy)

The end goal, Coach Muecke said, is these young men finding success in whatever aspect of their lives and hoping he helped them reach that success.

He said he loves when he sees these young men return after finding success.

“It’s invaluable,” Coach Muecke said. “It’s hard to put into words because that’s what you do this for, the life-long impacts.”

Senior Jack Slominski described Coach Muecke as loving and caring regardless of what level of the team a player competes. That caring, Slominiski said, extends past the field.

“He just cares, no matter if it’s about school or family or anything, he’s always there for you,” he said. “If you need anything, you can always reach out to him and I know that he’ll always be there for me and every other kid in this program.”

Principal Ann Achtziger said she’s had conversations with parents expressing gratitude for Coach Muecke and his emphasis on character. What stands out to Ms. Achtziger is how thoughtful and kind Coach Muecke is with those around him.

“He cares about finding the positive in everything and everyone,” she said. “He gives himself as a teacher and coach to grow leaders and youth of character.”

In the classroom

Coach Muecke is an Arizona transplant who moved from California as a child. He said he went through Scottsdale Unified School District before going to college.

Saguaro High School is at 6250 N. 82nd St. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

He tried playing collegiate baseball but said he learned the game was a business, deciding to prioritize family over playing. This led him to work on his bachelors and masters degrees through distance learning at Northern Arizona University.

He’s taught special education at Saguaro for about 10 years and won Arizona Teacher of the Year in 2012.

Coach Muecke has family members struggle similarly to those with autism. This has made it “second nature” for him to work with these students at Saguaro. He described working in special education as a calling and a vehicle to also coach baseball.

“That was something that once I had been exposed to it, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “It has just grown over the last 10-plus years of teaching and coaching together that I’ve just realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Coach Muecke works with freshmen to fifth-year students from across the autism spectrum. He teaches curriculum-driven English and transition classes.

He said these students have left a lasting impact on him. Some lessons he’s learned from them are patience, courage, strength and a recognition that special needs are not a choice so it’s important to make the best of oneself when having a choice because not everyone has that opportunity.

Coach Muecke finds it rewarding to see his students in the world without judgment such as working at a local grocery store. He also finds it rewarding in seeing the love and appreciation his students have for his efforts.

His wife is pregnant with their second child. As a result, Coach Muecke’s former students surprised him and his wife with a baby shower, he recalled through a cracking voice.

“Just seeing how much they care and how much you have impacted them, it’s really hard to put into words,” he said.

Ms. Achtziger said the way Coach Muecke teaches is through redirection and reteaching, learning a lesson from when someone doesn’t make the best choice and how to apply it in the future.

“When you walk by his classroom and hear him teaching, he has the patience of no one I have ever met,” she said. “He is a listener. Same when you watch him coach.”

A man of character

Saguaro Baseball Coach Joe Muecke watches the game from the dugout. (Photo courtesy of Megan Nelson and Bryan Hardy)

There are no shortage of people who have something nice about Coach Muecke. In many aspects, he’s left an impact on those he interacts with and it is not something many forget.

Mr. Leuschner said working with high school students isn’t always easy and sometimes, someone makes bad choices. What impresses him though is how Coach Muecke approaches those situations and makes it his mission to help that kid.

“There’s always a coachable moment and a teachable moment and Joe has an uncanny ability to find teachable moments and coachable moments,” he said.

“He doesn’t look at anything that is too small to celebrate or too big to critique and learn from. Little wins are big wins and little mistakes are big mistakes.”

The school doesn’t receive parent complaints about Coach Muecke, Mr. Leuschner said, because he always communicates with his students and players on his decisions. Mr. Leuschner said Coach Muecke never asks his players to do anything he isn’t willing to do as well.

It is this mindset that caused Mr. Leuschner to say, as a parent, Coach Muecke is the type of man he’d want his 14-year-old son to learn from right behind him.

But Coach Muecke again passes on taking credit. He said he was grateful for a supportive Saguaro administration, coaches and also a loving wife who he calls his “head coach of our home.”

“She runs an amazing home but allows me the opportunities to be around the boys that I’m around, spend the time that I need to spend and supports both in the home and out of the home,” he said.

“With our second child on the way, she’s the coach of the year as far as every year.”

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

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