Longtime coach relishes staying with one team

Published 1:41 pm Saturday, August 1, 2009

After 21 years of coaching the thing that still gets Jack Rovang is the smile on a kid’s face on the baseball diamond.

Behind the Wolfman Jack-like facade Rovang is a man who has dedicated his summers to coaching baseball. He’s coached the 12-and-under team for Albert Lea the past 21 years and hasn’t entertained thoughts of coaching another age group.

“What’s really enjoyable is that smile on the kid’s face when they make a big hit or make a real nice defensive play,” Rovang said. “They get more excited about that than the older kids would.”

Email newsletter signup

Baseball is the game he grew up loving. He followed Major League Baseball at an early age and witnessed some of the great amateur ball games of the 1950s and 60s at Hayek Field.

“I think that’s by far and away the best sport,” Rovang said. “I just like the game. I think you have to think more in baseball than you do in any other sport.”

Though his playing career was cut short he’s continued to enjoy the game through coaching. He’s also enjoyed a fair amount of success lately.

He’s seen the good times and the bad times of Albert Lea baseball and recently it’s been good. His 12-and-under team competed in the state tournament last weekend for the seventh straight season and he coached the state champion team in 2005.

“That’s something you remember the rest of your life,” Rovang said of the state championship.

How Rovang got into coaching isn’t as enthralling as one might expect. It does seem to fit his personality though.

His first introduction to coaching came in 1978 when a friend called and asked him for help with a park league hockey team. It was a situation where he couldn’t say no. Rovang, having just played the game growing up with friends, decided to oblige and he hasn’t stopped coaching since. In all, he has coached one sport or another for the last 32 years.

He has remained passionate about coaching through three decades and has no plans of giving it up anytime soon.

He coached his children as they grew up, his son in baseball and hockey, his daughter in softball and basketball. Rovang said he wouldn’t have been able to do it all without the support of his wife Marilyn.

Coaches in the youth ranks tend to disappear as soon as their children move on, but Rovang has filled an important role by maintaining a continuity within the youth baseball program in Albert Lea.

Jack Kortan, who coached the American Legion and VFW baseball teams this summer, spent three years coaching with Rovang. Kortan said the fact that Rovang has continued to coach well after his kids have passed through the program “speaks for itself.”

“He’s a good guy,” Kortan said. “He definitely cares about the kids.”

Barry Dahl had two sons grow up playing for Rovang and Dahl is glad Rovang continues to coach the team.

“I’m just glad that he’s there to keep it going,” Dahl said. “I know both my boys enjoyed playing for him.”

There are few ballplayers who don’t know Rovang and rarely do this miss an opportunity to visit with him.

Bob Hamberg’s son, Adam, played for Rovang years ago and Hamberg was always impressed with how Rovang communicated with the kids on the team.

“He’s a good coach, a good mentor for the kids,” Hamberg said. “He had a way of really communicating with younger kids. He could joke around with them and they knew when he was serious.”

The lessons on the diamond often extend beyond the field with Rovang. Jon Hansen has spent time coaching with Rovang and has noticed his influence extends outside of the park.

“He’s got a unique way of showing the kids he really cares,” Hansen said. “You can really tell he likes being around kids and improving them and not necessarily in baseball.”

Rovang has one goal each season and it’s one he feels he reaches nearly every season.

“My goal for every year is for the kids to improve throughout the season,” he said. “I think 99 percent of the time that has been successful.”

Rovang hasn’t had any desire to coach older players, though. He’s content with the 12-and-under team.

“I just discovered that the 12-and-under kids listened better,” Rovang said.

Rovang was quick to credit the efforts of his assistant coaches throughout the years.

“I can’t do this all by myself,” he said. “I’ve had very good assistant coaches who do a lot of the work and team moms.”

A accident in Rovang’s youth prevented him from playing baseball on the varsity team in high school. As a freshman he injured his elbow while playing football in the street. Rovang was a pitcher in his youth and the injury took away his velocity. His arm wouldn’t get better until three years after high school.

Rovang admits he’s a bit superstitious. From 2004 to 2005 his 12-and-under team went 13-1, the one loss came to the eventual state champion and it was the first time all season his team didn’t have the first base dugout.

His dedication to baseball has come through in other roles as well. He has served as the president of the Albert Lea Youth Baseball Association for the past six years and he’s rarely missed a meeting in that time.

Tattoos among servicemen aren’t uncommon, but one Rovang, who served in the Air Force, sports on his right bicep is unusual. On his bicep is Homer Simpson with a backward hat on and a mitt on his hand, getting hit on the head with a baseball. As for a story behind the tattoo, Rovang said he’d never seen anything like it before and decided to get it. No particular reason, but then again no particular reason led Rovang into coaching so maybe it’s fitting.