His looks were deceiving every time he walked onto the baseball field, approaching home plate for the pregame meeting and lineup exchange.
Walking with a limp because of knee problems, Mike Ellis’ demeanor never let you know something was wrong, although he wasn’t shy to let out his frustration when his Truckee baseball team committed a mindless error. Nevertheless, he brought an attitude to the game in Northern Nevada that encourages young coaches to envision where they will end in 10 years. With his sudden passing over the weekend due to an apparent heart attack, the state-winning baseball coach leaves another void in Truckee athletics after its longtime football coach retired two years ago.
The Wolverines became the class of the Division I-A after Bishop Manogue moved up to Division I last decade. They were the team to beat every year, even when they had a down season by their standards. They didn’t let the horrid snowy weather in Sierra prevent them from competing in the spring as Truckee always found a way to win, whether it meant practicing indoors all season and playing its home games in Reno.
But not until two years ago did Ellis and his Wolverines finally overcome their biggest hurdle when they won the Division I-A state championship over Elko in two games after coming from behind to send defending champ Fallon into the consolation bracket the day before.
I met Ellis five years ago when I umpired my first playoff game when Truckee hosted Fernley in a three-game series. He was welcoming, engaging and most importantly, he was enthusiastic and full of energy. Ellis took pride in his program every season, offering them opportunity after opportunity to get better and make Truckee baseball the best in the division.
His attitude and good nature toward opposing teams and even umpires stands out the most. When Truckee hosted Fernley in that Friday afternoon playoff game, I heard nothing from the dugout except he questioned one of my partner’s calls. He didn’t bolt onto the field and yell like most Division I coaches. Like his players and opposition, he treated umpires with respect.
Truckee is the team I have umpired the most since joining the association eight years ago. Every time I saw Ellis’ Wolverines come onto my schedule, I felt some relief knowing that not only would this be a good game to umpire but I looked forward to seeing Ellis and his team one more time.
I didn’t count on my doubleheader last month with Truckee being the final time I would see Ellis come out to home plate. I counted on seeing him and his improved Wolverines next month when they host a doubleheader against Dayton with both teams shooting for one of the four postseason berths.
He greeted my partner and I before the morning game at Spanish Springs and was excited about the new season but seemed more thrilled about his daughter turning 1 at the end of the month. For the first time in my five years of working Truckee games, Ellis showed that while baseball was important to him, his life off the field meant more than a state championship.
After his team dropped both games on the regular season’s second day, Ellis expressed a lot of frustration and I remember one of his defensive conferences against North Valleys being more heated than usual. He was trying to ignite his team to play like they know how.
Ellis worked hard for his players and the school as he was always on the field, either staying late to help a player with fundamentals or clearing the many feet of snow so Truckee can play a home game in its town and not Reno. Baseball coaches in this area, for the most part, are some of the most dedicated sports figures you will encounter in high school because of the countless hours spent prepping the field, counseling a player or riding the bus the every other weekend.
Many of the Division I-A coaches, including Fallon’s Lester de Braga, exhibit these traits and Ellis was no exception.
And they know how to have fun, which is the most important part of high school athletics that seems to become more lost these days with the primary focus on nothing but winning. Ellis had a good sense of humor, even with umpires, as he joked about my plate shoes being so big every time we met before the game or even the smell of my sunscreen at last year’s regional tournament in Winnemucca.
Northern Nevada lost a great man whose dedication to his program and town continues to spread throughout the region, making every Division I-A program hungrier than ever to reach that elite status of reaching the state tournament for six consecutive years and coming away with a championship.
Thomas Ranson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.