In the spring of 2002, Ozark coach Mike Essick had a gaping void to fill at catcher. He promptly summoned Justin Sundlie to move from third base to behind the plate.
"It fit me perfectly," said Sundlie, who went on to enjoy an all-state senior year as Ozark finished third in Class 3. "I loved every second of it."
Essick found his catcher and, at the same time, started the process that 18 years later would ultimately lead to the selection of Sundlie as his successor.
The Ozark School Board approved the hiring of Sundlie on Tuesday. He replaces Essick, who announced a year ago his plans to retire and that this would be his 26th and final season coaching the Tigers.
"I’m thrilled to death to be back," Sundlie said.
Sundlie joins a seemingly never-ending list of former catchers who have gone on to become head coaches. Last year, 12 MLB managers were former catchers.
"I think a lot of it has to do with knowing everything that is going on all over the field," Sundlie said. "A lot of the time a catcher is the field general. He's calling the game, along with first and third bunt coverages. Also, you have a relationship with the pitcher. You’re the guy who knows how to get him in the right state of mind to throw strikes. If a good catcher can make an average pitcher good, that changes your whole team. If you don’t have a catcher back there who knows how to control things and keep everything running, things fall apart pretty quickly."
Sundlie's coaching resume is primarily made up of jobs in Texas. After an NAIA All-American playing career at Lubbock Christian in Lubbock, Texas, he coached high school ball at Valley Mills, Texas, and Abernathy, Texas, and then took a job at his college alma mater as pitching coach. He returned to the Ozarks a year ago to become Spokane's head coach.
After 17 years in Texas, Sundlie was happy to return home and get back to the high school ranks. His older brother, Tod, is Ozark's wrestling coach.
"I love being around family. My three brothers are here and our sister is in Buffalo," Sundlie said. "I look forward to getting my kids (two sons and one daughter) plugged in to everything Ozark does. Since I’ve been back, I’ve seen some old friends. There are people still around from when I went to school here.
"I loved the idea of coaching college baseball. But it got to the point that I was gone so much due to coaching," he added. "There was so much recruiting that I’d be gone three or four days a week. The spring season, it was the same thing with three or four days of the week on the road for games. I was missing my kids. I was looking at high school jobs and being back in Missouri to coach at Spokane was a good option. It’s crazy how everything worked out. I couldn’t have planned it any better."
Sundlie is obviously well aware of the tradition at Ozark. The Tigers captured state championships in 2004 and 2008 and expectations are to win big every year. Under Essick, Ozark was 465-223.
"That’s the most exciting part. Playing at Ozark, we always had a bulls-eye on our backs. That’s part of being on top," Sundlie said. "Coach Essick built such a great program that you expect to win. We should be in the mix every year to do something special."
Sundlie adds he is proud to inherit the program from the coach he played for. He had kept in touch with Essick over the years.
"When I got my first head coaching job, I called him up immediately and asked him questions from field maintenance to bunt coverages. He knew exactly how to run a team, how to win and how to approach everything," Sundlie said. "I don’t know how many times, too many to think, I’ve gone back to what he taught me. He’s a great leader and I was grateful to be able to play for him. He built such a strong program. He pushed the program in the right direction. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be part of something he put together for so long."
Sundlie already is acquainted with most of Ozark's pitchers, having spent time tutoring them this past off-season.
"I got to work with a lot of them and got to know them during winter bullpens," he said. "I’m hoping to coach them this summer to get to know them better. But I’ll still be picking coach Essick’s brain about them like crazy."
In addition to baseball, Sundlie lettered in football and wrestling at Ozark. Wrestling at 215 pounds his senior year, he was 49-0 before falling in double overtime in a state finals match. He was a defensive lineman and fullback for football.
"I’ve known Justin and his family for quite a while. He’s good around kids," Ozark AD Yancey Little said. "With his success as an all-stater in three sports in high school and as a college player and the experience he has coaching high school and college in Texas, I think that will help him become a great coach for years to come."
Ozark has also brought on board Brandon Cobb as an assistant. Cobb is a former coach at Cassville.
"From everything I’ve heard about him, he will be an great asset," Sundlie said.