Clifford wins OVAC Coach of the Year

WHEELING – Justin Clifford was honored to be listed among the finalists for the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference’s top coaching award.

He was simply stunned when he heard his name announced as the 2014 recipient of the OVAC Bill Van Horne Coach of the Year winner during Monday’s 29th annual Banquet of Champions at WesBanco Arena.

Clifford won the award after guiding the Huskies to the 2013 OHSAA Division II State Baseball Tournament for the first time in school history. Actually, it was the school’s first regional trip, too.

“I had no clue (I was going to win),” Clifford said shortly after delivering his acceptance speech. “To be in the same breath (as the other finalists and winners) is just an honor.”

The other finalists for the award included: Wheeling Central’s Mel Stephens, Madonna’s Doug Taylor, Wheeling Park’s Don Headley and Cambridge’s Mike Denniston.

“Those guys have all done it a long time, so I feel extremely fortunate,” Clifford continued.

The Huskies went on a tournament run that featured everything you’d expect. You know things like a 15-inning game in the sectional, a six-run rally in the regional and then a balk to send home the winning run in the regional championship game.

“That run (in the tournament) is something you’ll never forget,” Clifford said. “For those who have experienced a state title or a state tournament run, words can’t describe the feeling that it is. Until you’re there and experience, words can’t describe it.”

Harrison Central took down Vincent Warren and Waverly in the regional at Zanesville last spring before falling to Plain City Jonathan Alder in the state semifinals.

The Huskies were led by then senior duo of Rashaen Mitchell and Nick Pelegreen, but those guys had plenty of help along the way.

“You don’t realize the accomplishment while you’re there,” Clifford, who played in a state baseball tournament at St. Clairsville, said. “Several years down the road, they’ll remember it even more and the stories will get better as the years go on.”

During the course of the run, there was hardly enough time for Clifford, his coaching staff or players to even enjoy it because of the preparations that go into each game.

“We were just worried about throwing a strike and winning an inning,” Clifford noted. “I was worried about whether the bus would show up and get us to the field on time. We almost lost twice during the sectional (against Carrollton) and were down six runs in regional final, but we just kept finding a way and that’s a credit to those kids and our coaches.”

If the baseball aspect wasn’t enough for Clifford, his wife, Heidi, was nine-months pregnant with the couple’s third child and first daughter, Jenna, during the run.

“My parents (Kim and Penny) were there, which eased my mind a little bit on worrying as much about Heidi,” Clifford said. “In that regional final game, I thought I was going to have the baby with how that thing went, so I can’t imagine how she felt.”

Clifford spent two seasons as the Huskies’ head baseball coach and is still the head basketball coach. He stepped down from the baseball post last summer after accepting a new job at Harrison Central.

“Harrison Central has been so great to me,” Clifford said. “I have nothing but great things to say about Harrison Central and the opportunities it has presented me.”

Clifford’s father, Kim, was a finalist for the OVAC Coach of the Year Award in 2012. When his Red Devils’ basketball team faces Justin’s Huskies in the winter, each wants to win as badly as the other. However, during the Huskies’ baseball run, Harrison Central and Justin didn’t have a bigger fan than Kim.

“If I could trade this plaque for the (entire) career my dad has put together, I certainly would,” Justin said. “I can’t say enough about what my dad has done for me, not only as a father, but as a coach. I owe it all to him.”