Joe Spatafore got into education because of his mother, Louise, a teacher for 42 years at David Lubin Elementary on M Street.
The Kennedy High School English instructor who goes by “Spat” in the classroom and softball field said he got into coaching because of his father, who played pro baseball in the 1950s and dabbled in softball fast-pitch leagues. He was his son’s bench coach early in Spatafore’s coaching tenure at Kennedy.
“I lost my dad eight years ago at 75, liver cancer, and I think about him every day,” Spatafore said during practice this week, before feeding softballs into a pitching machine. “He was my best friend. I grew up in dugouts. And my mom’s amazing. She’s doing well.”
So are the Kennedy Cougars.
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With a strong infield and a lineup of hitters boasting high GPAs with batting averages to match, Kennedy won a share of the Metropolitan Conference for the first time since 1982, splitting league games with rival McClatchy.
Now looms the ultimate challenge: playoff success. A Sacramento City Unified School District program has never reached a Sac-Joaquin Section championship game, a tournament that started in 1976. Kennedy aims to be the first.
Kennedy (19-4) plays at Pleasant Grove in a Division I opener on Wednesday. It is in the postseason for the fifth time in the six years of Spatafore’s second stint with the program. He stepped away for seven seasons, stung by criticism of parents who didn’t appreciate his effort and demanded more.
“I got tired of the parents,” Spatafore said. “I got tired of hearing, ‘If we had a good coach, we can win the section.’ It made my life a living hell. So Kennedy went seven years without a playoff team and became a laughing stock.
“I came back because of Chad Sweitzer and gave him a list of things we needed: field (refurbishing), and, ‘If the parents go to you to complain before me, I’ll hand the keys back over.’ He agreed. I should’ve made a longer list!”
Sweitzer, a Kennedy alum, was the school’s principal then and now works in the SCUSD office.
Spatafore is a hands-on coach, beyond personal instruction. He maintains the field beyond the district mowing it. This is his baby, and he’s nurtured it into a formidable program. Kennedy players and coaches raise $4,000 a year for infield dirt, and $12,000 overall. Athletes go door to door. They sell pizzas on campus. They email businesses. Anything to collect funds. Over the years, Spatafore challenged baseball players to try to hit off a softball pitcher in practice. It was easy money.
“The guys thought they could hit a rise ball, and good luck with that,” Spatafore said. “Made some money.” He added: “The girls give us everything they have. They drag the infield after every practice. We’re all in it together.”
Kennedy’s leading hitter is Mia Santos, a junior shortstop who is hitting .556 with 16 extra-base hits and 35 RBIs. A 3.75 student, Santos has generated scholarship interest from Cal and Utah as well as East Coast schools. Senior shortstop Kiana Lee is hitting .478 with 31 RBIs. The 4.42 student is headed to UC Davis to study neurobiology and to play softball.
“We’re having a lot of fun, and we have no drama.” Lee said. “But we’re nothing without coach Spat. He’s everything here.”
Danielle Reyes (12-3) and Lindsay Kawelo (7-1) are the Cougars’ top pitchers. Catcher Kim Evans, the leadoff hitter, is batting .407. Third baseman Kennedy Cole is batting .460 with 26 RBIs. She is the daughter Mark Cole, a Bee All-Metro baseball and basketball player at Kennedy in the 1980s.
And no, Kennedy Cole isn’t named after the school, though Spatafore enthusiastically adds: “Sounds good, though!”
Mark Cole coached Kennedy’s baseball team for six years and is now in his first season Spatafore’s assistant softball coach. His ties to the school run deep, including his appreciation of former Kennedy baseball coach Don Moak, long since retired.
“I just retired from the Sacramento County Probation and called people who where instrumental in my life, and that was Don Moak,” Mark Cole said. “We cried together on the phone. Coaching is giving back. This is a special place here. And Joe Spatafore has done an incredible job. He does it all here. It’s not easy to do this, but he does.”