If late Truckee baseball coach Mike Ellis could have selected his successor, one of his former players would likely have been at the top of his list — JR Murphy.
“I think this is what he would have wanted,” said Murphy, who was named head coach of the Truckee High baseball program on Wednesday, taking the reigns after his high school coach and friend died April 5 from a heart condition. Ellis was 46.
“There’s a little bit of motivation to pick up where he left off and carry out his goals and his dream,” Murphy continued. “I kind of felt that obligation, and I’m excited about that. But his spirit will still be around, definitely.”
Murphy, 28, is perhaps the most dominant pitcher in Truckee baseball history.
A hard-throwing right-hander and 2004 Truckee grad, he recorded 301 strikeouts in his three-year varsity career, which ranks fifth in the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) record book and first among the Division I-A ranks.
His 139 strikeouts his senior season remains an NIAA Division I-A record, while his 12 wins that season ties him for second all time in the NIAA. He’s also tied for second in NIAA history with an 18-strikeout performance.
Murphy went on to star at Yavapai College in Arizona, where he became an All-American and team ace while helping lead the Roughriders to the championship game of the NJCAA World Series.
He pitched his junior and senior years at San Diego State University under Major League Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn before signing with the Colorado Rockies as an undrafted free agent. He played one season with the Tri-City (Wash.) Dust Devils, the Rockies’ Short-Season Class A affiliate of the Northwest League, before calling it a career. He returned to San Diego State, where he earned his degree last May.
At the urging of Ellis, who continued to mentor his ace after high school, Murphy served as one of Truckee’s assistant coaches in 2012, when the Wolverines won the 3A (now Division I-A) state title.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to start a career in coaching somewhere,” said Murphy, who’s still in San Diego but plans to move back to Truckee in August. “It just so happened that everything worked out to take this one. I’m stoked.”
Murphy said he hopes to retain the bulk of Truckee’s coaching staff from this past season, including former Truckee players Daniel Galvin, Scott Decker and Michael Taylor, who took over as interim head coach after Ellis’ death.
True to his roots, Murphy said he’ll place an emphasis on pitching.
“We definitely want to get some pitchers on a step program and try to get them a little more dialed in,” he said, adding that he’ll also employ the knowledge he gained from Gwynn about hitting and other facets of the game. Gwynn, a 15-time all-star and eight-time batting champion with the San Diego Padres, died on June 16.
“When he would talk to the hitters in front of the whole team, I kept my ears wide open, so I’m going to try to emulate some of his strategies of hitting in our practices.”
Murphy said he has no specific goals in mind just yet, aside from introducing a new system to his players, who struggled through a rebuilding year in 2014. Prior to last season, the Wolverines had a streak of six consecutive state championship appearances.
“I just want the kids to play hard. As far as wins and losses, that’s not important yet until we see where we’re at and what kind of talent we have and where we can go,” he said.
Murphy added that plans are already in the works to further upgrade the Truckee High baseball field, which Ellis worked tirelessly to improve during his coaching tenure. A memorial for Ellis will be included in the makeover.