Arguably the best move James Coates made on a football field for the John F. Kennedy Eagles was to step off it.
Coates, a running back and defensive back, decided to skip his senior season of football in 2012. With a scholarship awaiting to play baseball at Penn State University, Coates wanted to concentrate on playing fall baseball last year.
It turned out to be a wise choice. Coates made the most of his freshman season at Penn State, leading the Nittany Lions in batting with a .295 average and on-base percentage at .392 in 47 starts in left field.
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
John F. Kennedy graduate and Penn State baseball player James Coates takes a practice swing during a game against Kent State this season.
It wasn't a good season for the Nittany Lions, who finished last in the Big Ten. At least they know they can count on Coates, who was named to the 2013 All-Big Ten Freshmen team.
"I was happy with how things went on a personal level, but obviously the team didn't do well," Coates said. "There are always things you have to improve on every day, and I will work this offseason to improve those things."
Coates' decision to skip his senior season of football came after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in his junior year. He's never looked back and thought he made the wrong decision.
"It was the right decision," he said.
An easier decision was making the call to attend Penn State, where his dad, James, was a receiver and standout punt returner for the Nittany Lions. There was a calling that the younger Coates couldn't resist.
That decision came at the most unsettling time in university history. The Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal was front-page news every day. The repercussions filtered from football to other programs.
Coates believes the scandal will have a bonding effect on the sports programs. It will be kind of an us-against-the-world situation for athletes in every sport.
"It actually has had a positive effect on the athletic side," Coates said. "The whole university was positively affected by it because we came together as Penn State.
"Our motto is we're one team. All the athletes are very close. We root for each other and are excited to see one another do well. We're a big family up there. We'll be stronger as the years go on."
Coates exhibited impressive skills from the start and never let up. He had 15 multiple-hit games, recording at least one hit in 35 games and scoring a team-leading 27 runs. In 173 plate appearances he registered 51 hits, including two doubles, one triple, 17 RBIs and a .318 slugging percentage. Coates flashed some of the speed possessed by his dad in stealing a team-high 10 bases.
Coates would have gladly traded all his accomplishments for a Big Ten championship.
"All that doesn't mean much," he said of the personal accomplishments. "I'd rather have us winning as a team. That's equally if not more important to me. The goal is always to make it to the postseason and see how far we can go."
Coates will hone his skills during the summer playing for the Southern Ohio Copperheads of the Great Lakes League. The Copperheads, who are located in Athens, compete in a collegiate league comprised of players trying to improve their skills.
"It's a good league to get into," he said. "There are guys from Ohio and supporting states. It's a good experience to keep maintaining over the summer and to improve my game so I don't sit around and do nothing."
The Coates name has to carry some weight at University Park. The elder Coates was a walk-on at Penn State in 1984 after a stellar career at JFK as a running back. His return skills eventually earned him a scholarship.
A quarter of a century after his dad played in his final game, the younger Coates is adding to the name recognition. The best part of it for him is having his parents and younger sister Chloe attend many of his games.
"My parents were great, and my little sister was a trooper," he said. "We didn't have the best weather, but they were pretty much at every game they could make."
You can bet the family will be making more trips east next season.