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Right-hand man good with lefties, too

04/01/2013, 9:43pm PDT
By Terry Monahan

Longtime pitching coach a key to Rancho Bernardo’s success.

Rancho Bernardo pitching coach Mark Furtak is in his 23rd season working for Broncos head coach Sam Blalock.

After his third season at the University of Hawaii, Mark Furtak had fallen out of love with baseball.

And the pitcher’s right arm was hurting as well.

“I soured on baseball,” Furtak recalled. “I’d lost my love to play the game I loved.”

So the 1984 graduate of Mt. Carmel High retreated from the game, though he still had college eligibility remaining.

Furtak, now 47, was out of baseball for three years before Sam Blalock, his coach at Mt. Carmel, asked him if he’d take over the Sundevils’ junior varsity team in 1990.

An amazing thing happened. Furtak rekindled his love of baseball, a love that still burns bright today.

When Blalock left Mt. Carmel to take over the baseball team at a new school, Rancho Bernardo, Furtak went with him as JV coach.

Two games into his first season as a Bronco in 1991, Blalock swapped one of his varsity assistants for Furtak, who immediately became the pitching coach.

After 23 years, Furtak is still Blalock’s pitching coach, an impressive stint for any assistant.

“I’ve been doing this a really long time now,” Furtak said. “I couldn’t believe it when I hit 15 years and now it’s 23.

“Looking back, it sure went fast. It seems like it was just 1999 the other day.

“The first day of practice is still special. Let’s put on our pants and go play. I feel like I’m where I need to be.”

None of it would have happened if Blalock didn’t need to replace Ed O’Connor, his longtime pitching coach at Mt. Carmel.

“I was a (physical education) major, so I saw a chance to get some teaching experience instead of just sitting in a classroom,” Furtak said. “I’ve learned more about teaching from coaching with Sam than I ever could in a classroom.”

In Furtak’s 23 seasons with the Broncos, the results speak for themselves. Rancho Bernardo pitchers have earned All-San Diego Section honors 17 times. Four were named section Player of the Year.

Most have gone on to pitch at the next level.

Cole Hamels skipped college after being a No. 1 draft pick of the Phillies and has been a major cog in the pitching corps for a team that won the World Series in 2008 and lost the Series to the Yankees in 2009.

“Cole did everything you need to do to win,” said Furtak, who was 9-1 with an 0.62 ERA while hitting .341 and driving in 25 runs as a senior at Mt. Carmel, his only loss coming to Santana in the section finals. “He threw really hard and had a major league curve plus he fielded his position, picked off runners and the kids knew they could win any time he went to the mound as a senior.

“Tom Caple and Jason Berni were the only pitchers I can remember whose mechanics were pretty clean when they got here. The rest of them, including Hamels, needed some slight changing.”

But getting players to listen to that advice is sometimes the hardest part of coaching. Convincing a pitcher who has been successful right up to the point where he walked into your dugout that he needs to listen to what you’re suggesting is getting harder and harder to do.

“The key is not changing everything they throw or their mechanics, but making them more efficient out there,” Furtak said. “Not everyone comes into high school throwing 90 mph. Most high school pitchers are in the 82-84 range.

“That means you better know how to pitch because a guy who throws 82-84 is going to reach a level where he can’t bust people with that fastball.”

Dealing with the mentality of pitchers is what Blalock loves the most about Furtak.

“He doesn’t cookie-cut his pitchers, force them to do it his way or else,” said Blalock, the county’s leader with 813 wins, 20 league titles and 10 San Diego Section crowns. “He approaches each kid a different way depending on how they pitch.

“Sometimes he’ll let a kid fail for a while until they come around to what he’s trying to show them. That’s called teaching.”

Because most high school pitchers cannot rely on just throwing as hard as possible, Furtak, who has taught PE at Meadowbrook Middle School for 17 years, is constantly talking pitching with his troops.

How to set up a batter to swing at the pitcher’s pitch is an underappreciated part of the game by most fans.

“Pitching is all about timing and changing the batter’s eye level of a pitch for one thing,” Furtak said. “You’re trying to mess up his approach at the plate. If he’s comfortable up there, he’s going to knock you around, but if you throw him off just a little you don’t have to throw 95 mph.

“I use a radar gun the first day of practice and then I put it away. That’s the one day they can be a thrower.”

From there on, Furtak demands that they become pitchers.’’

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