My high school days at Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, PA have become faded memories over the past 19 years. I remember moments etched in time – hanging out with friends, spending my usual time in detention each week and of course – playing baseball.
I was FAR from an athlete in my youth, but I had heart. I was never a star, never a guy that was depended on by a program that won way more than it lost. I was just another one of thousands of baseball players who had come through Hopewell High School over the half-century that Head Coach Joe Colella led the Hopewell Vikings high school and American Legion teams. I was just another kid with a bad haircut and a passion for playing baseball.
About five years ago, my wife and I were out Christmas shopping at a local mall when I saw Coach Colella across the hallway. It had been almost 15 years since I saw Coach, and I didn’t think he would remember me, but out of respect I wanted to say hello to a Beaver County and WPIAL legend. I walked up to him and extended my hand. “Hello Coach, you probably don’t remember me bu…….”. Coach cut me off and looked straight at me with a smile on his face. “Hello Jeff, how have you been?” I was astonished, this man who had coached so many different kids over the years actually remembered the name of a player who was never more than a fifth outfielder on a team he coached 15 years prior. At that moment, I was harkened back to being a 16-year-old sophomore. Sitting on the cold floor of the Hopewell High gymnasium on a frigid February night – it was the first time I had heard Coach Colella speak, the first meeting with players on the first day of conditioning practice for our upcoming season.
On that night, coach spoke to us all and laid down his ground rules. “You will be GREAT students,” he demanded. “You will bring your report cards to me on the day they are issued and if I don’t like what I see, you will be off this team.” “You will work hard at practice and learn the fundamentals of Hopewell baseball. There are no star players here, only a team.”
The speech was short and sweet, but I remember so well, I can almost hear the screeching of sneakers across the gym floor and feel the cold air coming out of the rusty vents above our heads. Coach Colella had spoken, and it was time to go to work. We would spend the next month – five nights a week, along with an 8:00am practice each Saturday – in that gym until the weather broke. Those practices were brutal, they were long and boring – but we learned the fundamentals of the Colella style of baseball.
By the time I was in high school, Joe Colella was already on his way to the WPIAL Hall of Fame. He began coaching as an assistant for Hopewell in 1960, then took over as the head coach in 1964. He coached Hopewell ballplayers until 2011. During that time, he became the most prolific high school sports coach in both Beaver County and WPIAL history. He won over 1,600 games between high school and American Legion ball and brought a ton of hardware to Hopewell. His 1979 team was the first sports team from Hopewell to win a WPIAL title. In 1986, he went even further, as his team won the PIAA state championship. He would go on to lead two more teams to WPIAL titles, including 2010. His American legion teams were just as successful, posting a record of 490-139 during his tenure with 16 division titles, six Beaver County titles, and three Pennsylvania Regional titles.
While many coaches who stay on for decades may eventually become a “coach” in name only, Coach Joe Colella was every bit of a head coach until the end of his career. He still hit balls for fielding practice, coached third base and handled all of the signs for the teams he coached. He was the embodiment of Hopewell Baseball; a man who changed the lives of so many young players. He taught accountability, honesty and integrity as much as he taught bunting, base running and the fake to third-throw-to-first play. Every single thing that Coach Colella did was meant to help mold gangly young adults into MEN. It was his calling in life, and to this day many of his former players will continue to utilize the lessons they learned on the field and in the dugout in their adult lives.
Coach Colella remembered the name and face of every player who ever suited up in the blue and gold of Hopewell High School. In comparison, Joe Paterno coached Penn State for 46 years – an amazing feat. Joe Colella coached Hopewell baseball for 51 years. The field that the team plays on today was named Joe Colella Field in honor of the man who meant so much to so many. The Coach Colella style of play lives on today through the hundreds of fathers who learned from him and are now using those tools to coach their own children in little leagues across the Nation. Coach Joe Colella was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame in June 2011, and there may never have been a more deserving inductee.
Sadly, Joe Colella passed away at the age of 80 on September 11, 2011. He left behind a legacy that will never be forgotten by anyone whose life he touched. As for me, I will always remember the times in the outfield shagging fly balls off of the bat of Coach Colella. Standing there in the crisp spring air, my friends by my side, and smiles on our faces, we knew that we were living in a moment that we would remember forever. When I am asked which coach or teacher impacted me the most as a child, the answer comes out of my mouth before I even have time to think. Head Coach Joe Colella of the Hopewell Vikings High School Baseball Team, one of the greatest men I ever had the honor of running laps for. One of the greatest people to ever grace the hallowed sporting grounds of Beaver County, and quite possibly the state of Pennsylvania.
When he was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2011, Joe Colella stated that the greatest victory in his life was when his wife, Dorothy, married him. Both of his sons went on to become medical doctors. Joe Colella was more than a winning baseball coach, he was a winner at the game of life.