By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
With the high school sports season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Citizen’s News is highlighting longtime coaches at Naugatuck and Woodland high schools who patrol the sidelines during the spring. This week, we shine the spotlight on Woodland baseball coach Mike Kingsley.
BEACON FALLS — Mike Kingsley had always wanted to be a high school baseball coach, and in 2001 he finally saw the perfect opportunity — Woodland Regional High School was opening its doors just a couple of minutes down the street from his Beacon Falls home.
He applied for the head coaching job — the Hawks were starting as a junior varsity-only program that first year — and hoped his extensive youth coaching experience would help him land the spot.
“They said I had no high school experience,” recalled Kingsley, who was passed over in favor of Joe Steele. Steele had plenty of experience, even bringing Litchfield High to a state championship game.
So, Kingsley fixed the hole on his resume by taking a spot on the staff at Vinal Tech in Middletown.
“I went to coach at a school where I didn’t know a single soul,” Kingsley said.
A year later, when Woodland elevated its baseball program to varsity status and had an opening at the JV level, Kingsley stepped back into the batter’s box. This time, he connected and earned the position where he’d spend the next seven seasons.
Although it was a new role for Kingsley, he immediately was comfortable with his position in 2003. His oldest son, Shane, was a freshman, and he had coached many of the players previously in travel baseball.
“Those were the kids I coached from the time they were 7 years old,” Kingsley said. “I kind of pioneered the travel program in Beacon Falls, so we had that experience. We were going everywhere, and you get very close to the kids and parents. Those were the kids who I had grown up coaching. At the high school level, I was familiar with everybody.”
In 2004, the Hawks won the Naugatuck Valley League baseball tournament with thrilling wins over Naugatuck and Seymour to earn the school’s first championship in any sport.
“Those kids all thought they could win,” Kingsley remembered. “They didn’t lack in confidence. They didn’t want to hear that they were a new school. They’d been playing baseball their whole lives and they knew who they were playing against. They went out and played their butts off and took care of business. They were a very talented bunch. The biggest thing was that they were so confident to be the new kids on the block. They showed no fear. They competed and played the game the right way.”
Shane finished his Woodland career in 2006 as a two-time All-State and three-time All-NVL player before playing at Marist and Eastern Connecticut. The following year, Kingsley’s middle son, Cody, was a junior second baseman on the squad that still stands as the program’s best — the outright NVL title, a 20-5 record and a trip to the Class M semifinals. Cody earned All-NVL honors in 2008 and later played for a stint at Post.
After the 2009 season ended, Kingsley decided to resign as JV baseball coach — he wasn’t sure if he’d ever have a chance to coach the varsity baseball team.
But when Steele stepped down entering the 2011 season, Kingsley applied for the head coaching job and got the gig — just in time for his youngest son, Tanner, to enter his freshman campaign.
Kingsley had spent the past 15 years coaching his sons, but being the head coach of his kid’s high school baseball team was a bit of a double-edged sword.
“The benefit was obviously being able to enjoy moments like that with your children,” Kingsley said. “The downsides were never with the players — everyone on the team always knew who should be playing. I never put much emphasis on the naysayers. I firmly believe that anyone who coached them would have played them the same way I did. People can claim nepotism, but anybody who knows me knows that wasn’t the case. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”
Tanner had earned a starting spot by midway through his rookie season, and he eventually ended his career in 2014 as an All-State and two-time All-NVL player with 88 career hits — two more than Shane.
The past half-decade has been a bit different for Kingsley, who would have entered his 10th season as the Hawks’ head coach this spring. He’s been away from coaching youth and summer baseball for years, which means he often doesn’t know much about players before they get to high school.
“I’m just now starting to get to the point where I don’t know the kids like I used to,” Kingsley said. “That’s fine because you’re evaluating talent and how they act anyways, and as a coach, you’re going to reward the kids who work the hardest.”
That was the case over the past few seasons. In 2016, Kingsley had a talented freshman class that included Zach Bedryczuk, Colby Linnell, Justin Butterworth and Justin Marks.
“When that group arrived as freshmen, we bit the bullet as a coaching staff,” Kingsley said. “We sat down and said, ‘We don’t care if they’re freshmen; they deserve to be out there.’ We knew they had to take the field and that we would take our lumps.”
That group, along with the talented ensuing class that included Jason Claiborn, Nick DeLucia, Mike Szturma and Trey Mastropietro, slowly forged success that led to last year’s 20-6 squad, which reached the Class M semifinals.
“They had overwhelming confidence,” said Kingsley, comparing that group to the school’s early teams. “They never doubted the fact that they could win. I’ve had talented teams in the past, but this team got off the bus and thought they were going to win. They were not intimidated.”
Over the years, Kingsley has pared down his coaching responsibilities at Woodland. Once a three-sport coach, he now focuses solely on the diamond. That’s probably been welcome news for his wife, Lori, who has logged as many minutes at Woodland sporting events as anybody.
“One year I coached freshman football, freshman basketball and JV baseball,” Kingsley said, “and I’m still married.”