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Numbers tell the story for Jefferson

OPINION -

March 28, 2002|BY DAN SPEARS

In sports, you can pretty much make the numbers say whatever you want them to say. But every once in a while, a number will pass by and it speaks - loudly and clearly - for itself.

I saw one of them Wednesday, when Jefferson High School played the 1,000th game in school history.

A cool fact? You bet. Even cooler when you consider the Cougars have won 801 times. They're not just winning at Sager Field or an out-of-the-way field in Keyser or Romney anymore, either. This milestone came in day three of a prestigious prep tournament in South Carolina.

And head coach John Lowery has seen them all. Well, almost all.

"I missed a couple for my sons' graduations," Lowery said from his hotel room in Myrtle Beach on Wednesday night. "But yeah, I guess you could say I've seen them all."

OK, so he hasn't seen "them" all, but he's definitely seen "it" all in 32 seasons walking around Jefferson County with a lineup card in his back pocket. And if you don't believe me, check out the two pages of mind-bending factoids in the Jefferson baseball program.

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But those aren't the things that make Lowery scratch his head 30 seasons after the Cougars made their inaugural pitch in 1973. It's how he and his program - and yes, folks, it's "his" program - have evolved from fledgling status to a powerhouse that's won seven West Virginia state championships.

"When you think back to the start, it's kind of mind-boggling," Lowery said. "When I was at Harpers Ferry (in 1971-72) my wife and I used to go up to the field and drive our car right to the edge of the dirt infield. We'd turn on the lights then get out and use Dixie Cups to scoop the water off.

"Now we've got lights and a great facility. We've even got another facility for the rain; we don't even go in the gymnasium anymore. It's amazing how many people and how many contributions have helped us get these kids of things."

The easy copout to that question is Jefferson's size; it is the largest school in the state. So of course, people say, they should be good.

But .800 good? For 30 years? C'mon. If you want to know why Jefferson is a cut above just about every program within a day's drive, go to Sager Field on a late September evening when the school's soccer or JV football team is at home. As you drive into Shenandoah Junction, you'll see not one, but two sets of lights on the horizon from the school complex.

"It's a testament to the kids in the county, to have guys who are good players and they are interested in playing," Lowery said. "Gene Kerns told me one time, a lot of schools have a lot of players, but maybe all those kids don't play.

"We've been fortunate that the kids that could play baseball did play baseball."

And played it well, too. They've made 16 trips to the state tournament and played in 12 finals, including the last five in a row. With teens being as impressionable as they are, seeing a winner begats being a winner.

"They want to be involved," Lowery said. "That's reflected in the turnout. Ninety kids tried out this spring. ... You think about all the guys that came through here since 1973 - building that tradition made others want to follow."

Eventually, though, someone will follow Lowery. He's already passed 800 career wins; that milestone came at the home of baseball, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. He can actually retire whenever he wants and continue coaching. He'll be inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame this summer.

Any number you can think of, he's got some sort of correlation, thanks to Jefferson High. That includes infinity.

"I grew up in Jefferson County; this is home to me," Lowery said. "And I have that option (to retire) if I want. But I don't think I'm at that point.

"I'd like to stay with this as long as I could. To give it a numerical goal? I won't do that. But for the forseeable future, I think I'll be around a while."

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