Orange Coast College baseball alumni reflect on the passing of Coach John Altobelli

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Photo By: Olyvia Simpson

One of the mourning students, JT Navarro, advances to first base after hitting the ball into the outfield during a game on April 26, 2019.

Matthew Wreden

John Altobelli was the former, beloved coach of three current Chico State baseball players. Prior to coming to Chico State to play baseball, the three athletes played for Altobelli at Orange Coast College. JT Navarro, Skylar Limonchi and Vince Inman played for the OCC Pirates, who are now mourning the loss of legendary head coach John Altobelli. 

Coach Altobelli, known as Alto, was one of the nine victims that died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Jan. 26. The victims included his wife, Keri Altobelli, their teenage daughter, Alyssa Altobelli, Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna Bryant, mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester, Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan. Altobelli was 58 years old.

Navarro, a senior from Fountain Valley who played baseball at OCC, vividly remembers his first encounter with head coach Altobelli in his office. Alongside one of Navarro’s high school coaches, he was met with several championship rings on display and a very intimidating coach staring back at him. 

“I saw all the pictures and teams he coached,” Navarro said. “Then I met him and realized this is where I want to be. This is a guy I want to be around, just by his energy and how much he loved the game.”

Navarro still remembers the long, deep and funny conversations he had with Coach Altobelli after Navarro left and enrolled here at Chico State.

Navarro recalled text messages he received from his coach with a smile including,“‘Hey JT, I got a new field’,” and “‘Hey JT, I got five new uniforms this year’.” 

Limonchi, a junior from Yorba Linda, also had a similar first encounter with Coach Altobelli. Limonchi was recruited to OCC by one of the assistant coaches and was told to show up after practice to meet head coach Altobelli. Limonchi arrived and was greeted by Altobelli.

“He showed me the office, the rings, trophies and everything he built and put into place,” Limonchi said. “He had a true passion for (baseball).”

During Limonchi’s last season at OCC, he was part of a memorable team that won the 2019 California Community College Baseball Coaches Association (CCCBCA). The Pirates would go 39-9-1 in that season, which included a 10-1 postseason record. 

On May 27, 2019, the Pirates took on the El Camino College Warriors for their eighth postseason game. They would lose this game 8-2 — their only postseason loss. One day later, the team would find revenge against the Warriors, winning the CCCBCA. They played a double-header with the game scores finalized at 7-5 and 8-7.

“After we lost that game, we could have hung our heads,” Limonchi said. “Coach rallied around us and told us it was never going to be easy. The bond we built as a team was like a brotherhood. He believed we could get it done.”

Limonchi remembered that whenever they started a new week, their coach would sit them down on the first baseline. 

“He told us that (each day) was the most important day of the year,” Limonchi said. “He said, ‘You can’t change anything about yesterday. You can’t worry about tomorrow. You can work on today’.”

Inman was at a different junior college in the conference before he enrolled at OCC. He wanted to play for Coach Altobelli.

“I hit up coach and I was grateful enough to get an opportunity to play,” Inman said. “On day one of practice, the difference was night and day. I had a lot of good conversations after that. It really changed my baseball career.”

After winning the championship, Inman remembered a very special moment between him, Coach Altobelli and the assistant coaches.

All of the players were hugging and Inman approached Coach Altobelli.

“I remember going up to coach and saying, ‘Thanks for not cutting me’,” Inman said with a laugh. “Altobelli responded with, ‘I am glad we didn’t, Vinny’. It’s something that I will never forget.”

Not to mention, Coach Altobelli and Kobe were exceptionally close friends. Both shared a deep passion for winning and excelling in one’s career and life. Additionally, Kobe’s daughter Gianna and Alto’s daughter Alyssa played on the same basketball team.

Before Kobe left for the Final Four, Altobelli asked him to pay a visit to the OCC baseball team.

“Coach Alto liked to make these meetings interesting with us,” Limonchi said. “Coach had us sit down the third base aisle. He told us that there were going to be rules and we are not going to mess around. Then, coach looked down across the field and waved him (Kobe Bryant) over. It was unbelievable. He gave us a very motivational speech. It was something that touched every single person.”

Limonchi recalled Kobe talking with the baseball team about being in a championship setting. Kobe mentioned that everything should be downloaded in your mind. Once you get on the field, everything should simply be a reaction.

Kobe is Navarro’s favorite sports hero.

“Most people had Jordan as their hero. I had Kobe. I remember being in that area (Los Angeles) and watching him win championships and stories about him out at practice and how bad he wanted to succeed,” Navarro said.

Inman, a junior from Huntington Beach, was driving when he received a phone call from his mother about Kobe passing away. He immediately thought of Coach Alto because of the special bond Alto and Kobe shared.

“I called Skylar and told him about Kobe passing away,” Inman said. “A few minutes later, we got a text from JT telling us the news about coach. It was absolutely devastating.”

While three Wildcats head into the 2020 season with heavy hearts, they look to carry on Altobelli’s legacy and play in his name. Altobelli left an impression on his players that one cannot simply forget. 

“Nothing would make coach happier than winning another championship,” Inman said.

 

Matthew Wreden can be reached at [email protected] or @MattWreden70 on Twitter.