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One of country's youngest coaches guiding Hilbert baseball

By the time Drew Fittry’s playing career ended at Niagara University, baseball felt more like a job than a sport. He still had a passion for the game, but he lost the love for the sport he’d excelled at since he was 8 years old.

Once his four years of eligibility were up in May of 2014, Fittry knew he didn’t want to play anymore. The thought that he was done with baseball altogether crossed his mind.

Fittry, an honorable mention All-Western New York selection in 2010 as a St. Joe’s senior, spent the two months after graduation applying for jobs mostly in retail and sales. Nothing spiked his interest.

Then came a phone call from Hilbert coach Matt Glowacki. He was calling to offer Fittry a spot on his staff as the pitching coach.

"At that point, I didn’t really think about coaching at the time," Fittry said. "So I’m like, I want to try something different. You only have one shot, so I took it."

Two years later, on June 27, 2016, Fittry was officially promoted from pitching coach to head coach of the Division III Hawks at the age of 24.

Fittry had never coached before, at any level, prior to joining Hilbert. So how, in just two years time, did he go from potentially walking away from the game of baseball to becoming one of the youngest head coaches in the NCAA?

His experiences as a standout starting pitcher on Monteagle Ridge paid immediate dividends.

Fittry, who celebrated his 25th birthday in January, was 22 when he was first hired at Hilbert. There were a couple pitchers on his staff that were older than him, which he admitted made it kind of weird at first.

But once he got in the full swing of things, the results were hard to ignore.

In 2015, his first year with the team, Hilbert established new single-season records for best strikeout-to-walk ratio and fewest walks per nine innings. They had the fewest walks in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference with 99.

In 2016, the pitching staff was vital in leading the Hawks to their first AMCC postseason berth. They walked the fewest batters in the conference for the second year in a row, were tied for second in strikeouts per nine innings and were third in earned run average.

Going from a Division I player to a Division III coach, Fittry’s seen things that his players have never seen before. And it’s not just guys who throw 90 miles per hour or hit .450. It’s the mechanics, the structure and the physical preparation needed at the D-I level.

"I learned that by improving your mechanics, you’re actually avoiding taking away from what your arm and body can generate with velocity," said Fittry, who’s doubling as pitching coach this season. "So I helped these guys out teaching them how to get down the mound properly and how to finish properly.

"Everyone says how mental it is. Just knowing that you’ve worked hard enough to get your body in good enough position to be successful and put yourself in an opportunity to have success, it gives you that confidence. While working physically, you’re also getting the mental side taken care of."

Drew Fittry works with a pitcher during a practice at the Sports Performance Park in the Eastern Hills Mall. Fittry was a standout starting pitcher for Niagara from 2011-2014. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Mental preparation is one of the aspects Fittry thrived in as a Purple Eagle, with one memory sticking out above the rest.

Fittry had become the ace of the staff by his sophomore season, posting a 4-3 record and the lowest ERA among starters at 5.58. But after that breakout year, he took a line drive off the right side of his jaw that ended his junior season after three starts and 10.2 innings. Fittry’s mouth needed to be wired shut for six weeks. He lost 25-30 pounds on a liquid diet.

That following summer was the best of Fittry’s career. By the time fall practices ended in 2013, he was throwing harder than ever. And once he found out that the first game of his senior season was at No. 5 Florida State, Fittry did everything possible to put himself in a position to succeed.

"Mentally, that success last summer pushed me up to where I needed to be," Fittry said. "So I went into Florida State with the right mindset. I’m warming up in the outfield and see ESPN cameras, and that’s the last thing I remember outside of the lines."

After Florida State broke up a scoreless tie with a RBI single, Fittry came to when Niagara coach Rob McCoy handed the ball over to reliever Cody Eckerson with one out in the sixth inning.

As he headed toward the dugout, the Tallahassee crowd rose to give Fittry a standing ovation. He had just no-hit a Seminoles lineup, one that had seven of its nine starters get drafted out of high school, for 5.1 innings. Fittry finished with two earned runs and just that one hit against. The Purple Eagles ended up losing, 4-1.

"I had such good tunnel vision that everything was working," Fittry said. "Honestly, when the game was going on, I was so locked in that I didn’t even know I had a no-hitter going. I was just going with the flow of the game and trying to stay locked in as long as I could."

That’s the type of unwavering vision Fittry is hoping translates to continued on-field success at Hilbert in his new role as head coach.

"For me, it’s such a joy to have a former player join the coaching ranks," McCoy said. "I called Drew to congratulate him and talk to him about his program and his plan to move it forward. ... He doesn’t need much advice. He’s a sharp baseball mind, and I am looking forward to following Hilbert College baseball."

If not for a lost junior season, Fittry would’ve finished as the all-time career starts leader in Niagara history. At 39, he’s only three behind Mark Wilson for the top spot. He also would’ve at least cracked the top five in career innings pitched.

"I’m proud of what I did and I can honestly say that I’ve moved on now and I’ve transitioned to being a coach," Fittry said. "I’m not one of those coaches that goes out there and says 'I did this as a player. I did that as a player.'

"No, I was a player. Now I’m a coach. I want to be a better coach than I was as a player."

Who knows, the sport that ended up feeling like a job three years ago could turn into a lifelong career.

"I have so much pride and have so much passion for the game that I have a hard time giving it up at this point," Fittry said. "I have so much confidence right now in what I can do as a coach that I’d love to see where this thing can go."

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