The Sterling Golden Warriors baseball team has a new coach for the 2014 season, but there's really not a whole lot new about him.
Nick Pepper, a 2002 Sterling grad, takes over the team from Robbie Minor, who stepped down during the offseason to spend more time with his family.
But Pepper, who served as Sterling's sophomore coach a season ago, has a lot in common with Minor. They graduated a year apart from Sterling and Rock Falls; both played 4 years of college baseball, Pepper at Wisconsin-Platteville and Minor at Evansville; and both played professional baseball, Pepper in the independent Frontier League and Minor in the Yankees farm system.
All that, plus a working knowledge of the Sterling baseball program both past and present, has made the coaching transition as smooth as can be.
"It definitely helps that I got my foot in the door last season," Pepper said. "I'm a familiar face to these guys, and I know what they're capable of."
"It's better when you don't have to start from scratch," senior outfielder Bryant Lilly said. "It's nice to have someone we know and trust take over."
Like Minor, the emphasis will be on fundamentals. Sound fundamentals win ball games, especially at the high school level, and Pepper is confident that his squad has what it takes to play solid defense.
Contact hitting is once again a focus, especially knowing specific situations and approaches, and Pepper's attitude and style are also things the Warriors are fairly used to.
"[Minor and Pepper] are both really competitive, they both want to win," senior infielder Frankie Perino said, "and they have the same goals of trying to help us be the best. I think Coach Pepper is a little more relaxed, lets us do more of our own thing at times, and I think that will help this group."
While the Warriors lost several solid seniors from last year's 14-19 campaign, Perino and Lilly are part of a strong core of returners who logged significant playing time and gained valuable varsity experience last year.
"Last year, we had some great leaders, and they'll be missed," Perino said. "But we've got enough returning players to have some good leadership again, and we've got plenty of guys who should be able to step in and fill the roles of the guys who are gone."
"It's a lot different group," Lilly added, "but we've still got some good pieces who know how to have success and can lead the way."
In addition to that experience, the Warriors have really bought into the program because of Pepper's playing experience.
"It helps to know they've been through it all before, played the game at a higher level," Lilly said. "They use their experiences as great players to teach us what they've learned through their careers."
"Sometimes coaches tell you things you've heard a million times," Perino added, "but Coach Pepper is always telling us new stuff we haven't heard before. It's easier to believe and trust them, because you know that they know what they're talking about."
Throughout the offseason and summer workouts, Pepper liked what he saw from his team, and liked the makeup of the squad. And even though the Warriors have been outside just twice so far this preseason, their coach sees big things ahead.
"We have guys who have been there, done that," Pepper said, "and they're pushing each other and fighting for those starting positions. I think we've got a group that can really do something special."
High school: Sterling (class of 2002)
College: Wisconsin-Platteville (played 4 years of baseball)
Occupation: Personal trainer at Anytime Fitness in Rock Falls
Coaching career: High school coach in Potosi, Wis. (1 year); Edgewood College in Madisomn, wis. (1 year); sophomore coach at Sterling (1 year)
FYI: Played 3 years of professional ball in the Frontier League.