PORTSMOUTH — Area high school baseball teams would, in a normal year, be making their final preparations for the first game of the season — the ones that count.
Aaron Duncan, recently hired as the Portsmouth High School head baseball coach, was looking forward to coaching the program he once was a player for.
If you ask those around Duncan, they’d have figured the new PHS program head would have spent two decades where he now resides — in a dugout rather than on the gridiron.
“I think most people that know me would’ve thought I would have spent 20 years in baseball as opposed to football,” Duncan, Portsmouth’s football coach between 2014 and 2017, said. “I spent that time doing football, I coached baseball a few years that I did football as well, but starting a family was just too difficult to do both.”
The 1992 graduate of Portsmouth resigned from the head football position in 2017 citing — at the time — the decision to spend more time with his family, and also be a spectator at his sons’ (Michael and Tyler) games.
A short layoff from the sidelines didn’t account for being approached by athletic director Joe Albrecht and principal Doug Poage to take the position — after coach Josh McGraw was hired as the new baseball coach at Jackson High School.
“I kid with people that I was the default candidate,” Duncan joked. “There was really no one that applied for the position, I was asked to take it on. Trying to give back to my school, the kids who I coached in Little League who are now in high school. Dove back into it and was really looking forward to getting back into the season, and then this happens.”
Although the Portsmouth baseball program hasn’t experienced a winning season since 2010, Duncan states that the work McGraw and his staff put into his two seasons was certainly sufficient.
“I stepped into a situation that was not broken because he (Coach McGraw) instilled a lot of the same philosophies that we learned from playing under Coach (John) Tipton.”
Not unique in their acumen for coaching, Duncan and McGraw both were part of the modern glory days of Portsmouth baseball when — in 1992 and 1993 — the Trojans were named AP Poll Champions in back-to-back seasons.
In fact, both teams, including players and coaches who comprised those teams, were recently named to the Portsmouth High School Athletics Hall of Fame as a way of honoring Tipton — who did not graduate from Portsmouth — and his staff with the highest recognition the school can offer for their time as Trojans.
Both teams were honored prior to the start of one of Portsmouth’s basketball games in the 2019-20 season.
“What’s amazing is that we picked up right where we left off,” Duncan said of the induction. “A lot of us have went our separate ways and haven’t been around each other in years, but we got back together for the Hall of Fame induction and shared stories, things that happened on the field, scores of games that we won or games that we felt like we should have won… That’s one of the great things about sports is the relationships you build, the memories that you create and we were able to share that experience.”
While things have been rocky in recent years for Portsmouth baseball, the history of the program remains — as does those who helped build and establish said history.
Duncan knows that history more than anyone, as he’s now tasked with leading the same program he once reached extreme heights with.
“I was blessed with having a tremendous experience as a player when I was in high school, playing for Coach (Curt) Clifford in football and Coach John Tipton in baseball,” Duncan said. “We won in both sports, our basketball program was at the top. Nowadays when you think of baseball in Scioto County you think about Wheelersburg, but when I was coming up at Portsmouth High School, Portsmouth High School was the pinnacle of baseball in this county. Getting the chance to give back to my alma mater and the people who’ve given to me is what’s important.”
Then, of course, comes the unexpected challenges that have arisen in recent weeks for coaches and players across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of today, the 2020 spring sports season is still postponed while schools in Ohio are currently scheduled to return to in-person classes during the first full week of April.
The OHSAA (Ohio High School Athletic Association) has in-place a mandatory no-contact period through April 5, which Duncan and his staff must abide by, per OHSAA by-laws.
The looming threat of a cancelled 2020 spring sports season is not one Duncan, nor his players, thought they would have to deal with even less than a month ago.
“We have five seniors on our team, a lot of these seniors I had the privilege of coaching in Little League,” Duncan said. “My kids are around the same age and are on the team. To say they were devastated is pretty close to accurate. To add to that, our hats and uniforms that we ordered new this season are in customs in Shanghei, China. So these seniors haven’t even gotten the chance to wear their uniforms or pose for their senior picture with their hat and their uniform.”
Nonetheless, Duncan, among other coaches and players, must consider the uncertainty that lies ahead in terms of what the future holds.
The new head coach, regardless of timing or final outcome, was and is certainly looking forward to seeing his team take the field for action — if that day comes.
“I was really looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labor,” Duncan said. “They’ve put in a lot of hard work, to see it in action and to see how it goes so that they can see the improvements as players, I was looking forward to that. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to, just trying to stay optimistic.”
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved