May 22, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

PHOTOS: Thousands pack OCC stadium on opening day and honor Coach John Altobelli

OCC assistant coach Kent Watanabe heads to the dugout as Pirate players support each other before the game Tuesday. (Photo Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone)

It was a perfect setting for opening day Tuesday at Wendell Pickens Field on the Orange Coast College campus.

There were sunny skies, the stands were packed with an estimated 2,500 fans (some who were standing down the lines) and the Pirates were ready to begin defense of their state title with a game against Southwestern.

But the man who helped build the stadium and the program and led it to four state titles, Coach John Altobelli wasn’t there and he was certainly missed. Altobelli and his wife Keri and youngest daughter Alyssa, 13, were among nine killed in a helicopter crash Sunday that also killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.

To see the slide show, please click on the first photo

Altobelli, 56, was about to begin his 28th season at OCC.

“It’s been a wild few days, it hasn’t been easy,” said OCC’s interim coach Nate Johnson. “I was telling my team today that today is Alto’s favorite day, he loved opening day and on opening day he was always here super early. But today I beat him to the field and that’s the only time that I ever do.”

It was a tribute that Altobelli would have been proud of. Many fans wore T-shirts that were given away that read, ‘Forever A Pirate, 14,’ in honor of Altobelli’s number. Fans visited a shrine which included photos and lots of flowers at the front of the stadium. Players from both teams lined up on the field during the ceremony. The OCC players wore shirts with Altobelli’s number 14 on the back and included the names of Keri and Alyssa Altobelli.

“This is truly only a fraction of the impact that John Altobelli had,” said Athletic Director Jason Kehler during a ceremony before the game. “He was an amazing man and an amazing coach. And he was all about his Pirate family. I talked to the team a few times and I kept saying that, ‘this is the impossible.'”

Kehler said that Altobelli talked last spring during a luncheon at the state tournament last year about what it was like to lose a player, OCC’s Jourdan Watanabe, a former Northwood High standout who died in 2009.

“What he shared was, ‘you will see your brother’s number everywhere you look,’ and every time you see that number it will make you think of him and remember him.’ There are a lot of fourteens here today, every time you see the number 14, you will remnember the man that he was,” Kehler said.

Interim coach Nate Johnson thanked all the supporters too and emphasized the impact he had on him.,

“They were a great family, they brought me in to their family seven years agao and they treated me like one of them, they treat everyone like one of them,” Johnson said. “That’s why there are so many people out here wearing these fourteen shirts. They made everyone feel like an Altobelli and more a Pirate.”

One of Altobelli’s brothers Tony, the sports information director at OCC, thanked everyone for their support. He said he had received more than 3,000 messages from those sending their sympathy.

“It’s been unbelievable, thank you from our family, from the bottom of my heart,” Tony Altobelli said.

Tony Altobelli relayed a story about a visit he had with an umpire Tuesday.

“He loved my brother to death, he was part of the final four last year and been around for years,” Tony Altobelli said. “He told me how much he loved my brother and kind of broke down a little bit. It was touching. The only think that could come into my mind was, ‘can you imagine my brother making an umpire cry.’ I know he was up there laughing during that little interchange.”

Thousands attending the tribute, including former UCI coach Mike Gerakos, Beckman Coach Kevin Lavalle and former CdM Coach John Emme. Also on hand were Guy Lemmon and Dick Owens of the Ryan Lemmon Foundation.

The news of Altobelli’s death hit the OCC baseball players hard. Counselors were made available on campus all week.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” said OCC pitcher Justin Goldstein from Beckman said in an interview. “I remember sitting on the bench out there with Alto telling me how much he wanted me to be out here and how much this team was going to do and that I would just be an extra addition and I could really help them out.

“And so I made that decision to come here to OCC and play for him and the last two months were about the best two months of coaching I’ve ever received. It’s a really nice environemnt here and great teammates and I was really ready to get the season going. News broke, we were all heartbroken and came together on the field. It just shows how much this team has bonded in the short time we’ve known each other and how far we’re going to go this year.”

Tony Altobelli ended the ceremony by asking fans to smile for the next few hours during the game, because that’s what his brother would have wanted. Altobelli’s sister, Sissy Oberlin, was in the stands for the game. She was supported by the Beckman baseball coach, Lavalle. Oberlin is athletic secretary at Beckman.

Southwestern had a 7-6 lead going into the top of the ninth inning when the game was called on darkness. It will be resumed at another date.

-Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com