A league of his own

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION – As the 2012 baseball season kicks off at Berkeley Springs next week, John Lowery is anticipating success. In nearly four decades as Jefferson High’s head baseball coach, he’s never had a losing year.

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Lowery’s career record – 1,114 wins, 288 losses and three ties – makes him the winningest high school baseball coach in West Virginia, and among the winningest anywhere in the nation.

Since his first West Virginia title in 1979, he’s led the Cougars to the state title at least once in five different decades, most recently in June.

Lowery’s track record is nothing short of remarkable, explains Ron Davini, executive director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association in Tempe, Ariz.

“You see coaches, good coaches, who go their entire careers and never win a state title, maybe never even make it to the state tournament,” Davini said. “So for someone to have won a state title three or four times, that’s obviously quite a feat. To have won a state title 10 times … it’s hard to get your mind around just what an accomplishment that is.”

And Lowery still isn’t done.

He’ll be directing the action in Berkeley Springs as the Cougars play their first game of 2012 – and that March 14 game could be the start of another winning season, one that may bring Jefferson its 11th state championship.

It’s been more than a century since the first Lowery arrived in the Eastern Panhandle and began making a difference in classrooms and on sports fields.

John Evans Lowery, born in Norfolk, Va., in 1878, came to Jefferson County for better job opportunities. When Shepherdstown High School became a four-year school in the late 1920s, he was named its principal.

His son, T.A. “Ted” Lowery, played baseball at then-Shepherd College before settling in as principal at Charles Town High School. He served as the county’s schools superintendent from 1948 until 1971, and Shenandoah Junction’s red-brick T.A. Lowery Elementary is named in his memory.

Sports has always been part of Lowery’s life. His earliest memory of baseball is watching as his friends headed out to play Little League. “You had to 8 years old and my birthday being in the fall meant I was younger than most of my classmates,” he said. “I just remember all my friends playing. I was anxious to get started.”

Even before he met the age requirement for Little League, Lowery played baseball at every chance. “You’d get four guys, find an open lot and play baseball all afternoon,” he said.

Lowery has praise for his Little League coaches, Woody Walters, “Moon” Whitmore and Russell Miller. “I was fortunate enough to have some really good coaches,” he said. “They were just excellent with young kids. They all had incredible patience.”

All through his growing-up years, Lowery remembers watching Shepherd football games and other sporting events with his dad. “My father loved all sports, but baseball was always the game my dad had the most interest in,” Lowery recalls.

As a teenager at Charles Town High, Lowery followed his brother Ted Jr., who is six years older, into sports. He played basketball and football and earned third-team All-State honors in baseball. In the fall of 1963, he enrolled at Potomac State College, where he played baseball. After two semesters in Keyser, he won an appointment to the Naval Academy.

His stint in Annapolis lasted just a year. “I took physics, chemistry and calculus the same semester and that wasn’t wise,” he said. “It comes down to, certain opportunities may not be the right opportunity. I did get to play plebe baseball. [Dallas Cowboys’ star quarterback] Roger Staubach was captain of the varsity baseball team that year and so I got to cross paths with him. I don’t look back on that time with any regret. The discipline of that year served me well.”

He returned to Potomac State, re-joined the baseball team and began dating a classmate from Charles Town. On the next-to-last day of 1967, he and Vicki Blue wed in their hometown, at St. James Catholic Church.

The pair then enrolled at Fairmont State, where Lowery closed out his collegiate playing days in the West Virginia Conference.

Once he’d completed his degree, Lowery returned to the Panhandle and signed on as a driver’s ed teacher, working mornings at Shepherdstown High and Harpers Ferry in the afternoon.

He took on his first formal coaching duties in 1969. At Harpers Ferry High, which enrolled grades seven through 12, he worked as an assistant football coach, head track coach and as junior high basketball coach. “Coaching always interested me,” he said. “I guess it’s the competitive nature. It was just a natural evolution, I think, to want to stay involved.”

In 1971, he became the school’s head baseball coach. His team finished the year with nine wins and 11 losses, the only losing season of his career. “I actually was happy with what we accomplished,” he said. “We were such a small school. At one point, we only had nine players. And we did manage to beat Charles Town High that year. I was pleased about that.”

For the 1972-73 academic year, the student bodies at the county’s three high schools – Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown and Charles Town – merged to form Jefferson High School, and Lowery began coaching there, immediately becoming the school’s baseball coach.

He also served for 11 years as Jefferson’s assistant football coach and as varsity basketball coach.

On the baseball field, Lowery’s ability to compete never has been in question. In addition to 10 Class AAA State Championships, the teams coached by Lowery have finished as state runner-up four times and won 27 sectional championships and 22 regional titles. The Cougars have had 35 consecutive seasons where they’ve recorded 20 wins or more and another 17 seasons with 30+ wins.

“Everybody, when they first start coaching, says, ‘I want to win a state championship.’ Well, I can remember that.”

During the final game of the 1979 state tournament, Lowery happened upon a strategy for quelling his nerves in the game’s final innings.

“When you’re a player, you can get out on the field and your physical activity relieves some of the pressure, but coaching, you don’t have that outlet.

“This was our fourth trip to the state tournament – which means we’d been there three times and hadn’t won. I was tired of that; I wanted to win one.

“I always chewed gum and so, wanting a way to measure the countdown and relieve some inner tension, with us in the lead entering the last three innings of the game, I put nine pieces of bubblegum in my back pocket. Every time we’d record an out, I’d put another piece of gum in.

“I was thinking to myself, when I don’t have any bubble gum left in my back pocket, the game’s gonna be over, and we’re gonna have won.”

The showdown would end with his mouth jammed with bubblegum and his team a 7-0 victor over Wayne High. “It might seem kind of a silly thing to have done, but it’s what I needed it to do to control my emotions,” Lowery remembers with a chuckle. “I spit it out before I got choked.”

Over the decades, winning games – and state titles – became something of the norm for Lowery. In the spring of 2008, he recorded his 1,000th career wins, one of just 10 high school coaches in the nation to reach that milestone.

His record places him fifth on the National Federation of State High School Association’s all-time wins list. Among still-active coaches, Lowery is No. 4 in all-time wins.

Over the years, he has been inducted into the West Virginia Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, the Potomac State College Athletic Hall of Fame, the National High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Lowery says one of his real joys over the years was the chance to coach his sons.

Older sons John Jr. and Charlie played together as pitcher and catcher on the 1988 championship team while his youngest, Rusty, was a key member of state-title teams in 1991 and ’92.

“I try to coach by meritocracy,” Lowery said. “Performance determines that merit, and certainly all three of my sons were able to stand on their own in that regard, and they all went on to play successfully at the collegiate level.”

John Jr. recently wrapped up seven years as head baseball coach at rival Martinsburg High School, where he proved one of his father’s toughest rivals. He led the Bulldogs past the Cougars en route to a state championship in 2009.

“I could just see how happy he was,” Lowery said. “He had a group of guys that year that were truly a unit.”

But as pleased as he was with his son’s success on the ball field, coaching against him proved tough.

“In the beginning it was kind of a unique thing. It was father against son, but it was also Jefferson against Martinsburg. Both teams wanted to win in the worst way. It would get to the point where we were kind of quiet with each other. I’ll say this, I’m proud of the job he did up there.”

Although John Jr. has taken a teaching position at Jefferson High, he won’t coach with his father this spring. Lowery Jr. plans to stay busy coaching his older son’s traveling baseball team.

Meanwhile, Lowery says he hasn’t begun to entertain thoughts of retiring from baseball.

“I enjoy it today as much as ever I did,” the 66-year-old said. “I still enjoy the competitive part of it. I enjoy thinking about it. This year, with the nine seniors we graduated last year, you know it’s going to be fun trying to get a relatively new group of guys together and see if you can get them to become a unit and play unselfishly.

“As long as I enjoy it and feel I can be effective – and the players, school administrators and parents feel I’m effective – then I want to keep at it.

“I don’t like to use the word obsessed, but I get totally absorbed. It’s an adrenaline rush when the season starts to come around and you get a chance to work with the guys and watch them develop.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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