St. John Neumann Head Coach Cory Burkholder took the reigns of a historically uncompetitive baseball program mid-way through the 2017 season. The St. John Neumann baseball program had never had a winning season in program history, and never won a District Championship.
In just four and a half years, Burkholder, his staff, and his players have changed the culture and the narrative. Most impressively, in less than five seasons, Burkholder has made St. John Neumann a district champion after a 4-3 win in eight innings over Cowanesque Valley on Monday.
One of Burkholder’s key traits that he’s preached to his players has been “handling adversity” and overcoming it. He’s motivated them for when they get knocked down, to get back up time and time again. The Knights demonstrated that the lesson was learned when they rallied from a one run deficit in the sixth inning to tie the district title game. And echoed that lesson even more so down to their last strike trailing by a score of 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning before rallying for an emotional win.
As the tears flowed from Burkholder’s eyes, coaches, players, former players, parents, administration, and fans alike all got a first-hand look at how much this win, and this journey, has meant to a coach who gives so much to his team and his program.
“It was huge, it was amazing, it was unspoken. I’m at a loss for words right now, for these guys and their hard work, dedication, and the administration’s dedication to our program.” Burkholder said.
As the team had to overcome adversity and will their way to a win, every time a players head dropped, there was a player to pick their head up.
“Everyone stayed positive, the coaching staff stayed positive and just understood the mission at hand and we just stayed faithful and stayed competent and just kept pushing the envelope. That’s who we are.”
The crowd at Logue field for Neumann’s District 4 Class A District Championship was a sight to be seen for a program that historically drew solely parents. The bleachers and fences were lined with fans, the cheers echoed throughout the complex, and joy was palpable as Jerval Weeks-Shuler hit the game winning single to secure the victory.
What Burkholder has done for this program is bigger than baseball; it’s impacted lives of players that may not have thought they were going to college, it’s made children men, it’s made athletes students, and it’s made Neumann such an enjoyable program to watch succeed.
“I could write a story on Corey alone and the impact he and Rick (Armstead) has made on these young men. He is so much more than a coach, he is a mentor, leader, and trustworthy confidant to the kids. Pre-Covid he would come at lunch, introduce himself to students he didn't know, support his athletes, and create a rapport with teachers. Cory often uses the acronym HYB Handle Your Business. He holds the students accountable on the field and off.” St. John Neumann Head Principal Alisia McNamee said of the Head Coach. “Ensuring students are being respectful, taking care of school work and always arriving on time. He is positive in his interactions with the players turning mistakes, misunderstandings, and issues into teachable moments”. She continued, “This speaks volumes about Corey's character in helping us create the well rounded student and meeting their needs beyond his call of duty as a coach. Students trust Corey and Rick (Armstead)and reach out to them for advice and guidance beyond the baseball field.”
After starting the reboot of the program in his first full season as Head Coach in 2018, Burkholder led the Knights to their first winning season, and third ever playoff appearance. Ironically, their season was ended by Cowanesque Valley and Neumann was able to get their retribution on Monday in the district title game.
In year two, the Knights made even more improvements setting a school record for wins and making the district semi-finals just taking one more step in the chase for that elusive District Championship for the St. John Neumann program.
In 2020 the Knights looked poised to finally capture the title, with a team of six seniors, three of whom would ultimately go on to play collegiate baseball. The Covid pandemic sadly ended what was thought to be the season before it began, not allowing the 2020 Seniors their chance to continue to make history. But what Burkholder instills in his players is what made his 2020 seniors so proud and happy to witness the District Championship on Monday, even though it wasn’t them who were able to earn it.
“His passion and his belief in everybody, he knows what you can do, he needs you to believe you can do it. That’s why he’s hard on some people, some people get in their own way of becoming successful and he’ll get on your case because he doesn’t want anyone to give up on themselves.” 2020 senior Kyle Ferguson said after watching the Knights win the District Championship front and center.
No more than 30 seconds after the game winning run was driven in, an emotional Cory Burkholder ran to the fence to pull out another senior from last year in Solomon Grant to give him his vintage bear hug, so happy and thankful to have had him play a role in the foundation built to bring this program to where it is.
“He loves coaching, at the end of the day he’s not just coaching for baseball he’s coaching everybody to be a better person and a better man. Day in and day out he pushes them to be the best and he holds them accountable.” Grant said.
Former senior catcher Naaman Amos also was beside himself, knowing that the job was finished for the Knights program and Burkholder. He said “It’s crazy, it’s indescribable, nobody ever thought that Neumann could do that.”
Burkholder has gotten to experience this ride and capture the district title goal with his son on the mound as his ace, making this a story book chapter considering the state tournament is yet to come.
“It’s emotional, this being my last ride with my dad on a baseball field. This shows how hard we work on and off the field. He spends days and nights at the baseball field trying to get it ready so we have somewhere to play. He’s always given me an avenue to play baseball somehow so it’s emotional but so incredible” Senior pitcher Keon Burkholder said of the journey with his dad.
Now Neumann looks to capitalize off the momentum of Monday’s victory. With the firepower that can come in the lineup with the likes of Ryan Thompson, Jeffrey Hamilton, Javale Weeks-Shuler, Caleb Reddy, and Naz Smith, the Knights can be a dangerous and scrappy offensive team next Monday when they take on Tri-Valley. Keon Burkholder will look to continue his dominance on the mound after a six-inning, ten-strikeout appearance in the biggest game of his high school career, and Coach Cory Burkholder will look to do what he’s done so many times already; make history again.