West coach Opinsky passes away from cancer at age 52
Posted by Van Williams, ALB Media Director | Jan 11, 2021
West baseball coach John Opinsky, who only five months ago watched his son Jack drive in the winning run in the state championship game, passed away last week from brain cancer. He was 52.
Opinsky in 2019 was diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal type of cancer called glioblastoma, but it couldn't keep him away from the game he loved. He continued to coach the Eagles with his good friend John Wilson and walked off the field a winner.
Opinsky was survived by wife Cathy and their three sons Jack, Nicko and Jimmy.
“After the last game of the season, John gathered the team and professed his love for his wife, his boys and his team," Wilson said. "To steal a line from Lou Gehrig, he essentially declared himself ‘the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.’ ”
Opinsky graduated from West High in 1987 and played Legion baseball for the Eagles before coming back 30 years later to coach his alma mater.
Before that he was a Little League coach and served on the board of directors for Anchorage West Little League. His team won the AWLL state title in 2016 in his final season before coming to West.
“John was a tireless baseball volunteer who believed every player deserved a chance, and was particularly adamant about not pigeonholing players into one position,” Wilson said. “This philosophy often paid dividends over the course of a season.”
Opinsky coached all three of his sons in Little League, and Jack and Nicko played for him in high school and Legion. Both guys were on the 2020 team, although Nicko missed the second half of the season after getting injured sliding into third base.
At the state tournament, Jack, a shortstop, won the Gold Glove Award as the best fielder and provided a storybook ending to West’s first championship since 1977 with a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning to provide a 3-2 walk-off win over Wasilla at Mulcahy Stadium.
After the game, father and son exchanged a big bear hug on the field.
Even though people in the Alaska baseball community knew about his brain cancer, news of Opinsky’s death hit hard. For most, memories of seeing him just last summer were still there. The lasting images of him running onto the field to celebrate his son’s heroics still fresh.
“John was such an amazing soul who I was blessed to be able to call my friend,” said Wasilla coach Ken Ottinger.
“He did everything the right way and made a difference in these young men’s lives by giving them direction and love through the game that we all love. It saddens me that he was taken way too soon, but it eases my heart knowing that he will continue to lead us from above with that so deserved 2020 state championship trophy.
“In this world that we are surrounded in today we need to all love and live by John’s example. On and off the field. Be kind to one another as John was kind to all of us. Thank you, John for blessing me with your friendship.”
Photographer Wendi Bates got to know Opinsky over the last year with her son Quinn playing his first season for West. She said it was clear the man loved baseball.
“But more than that he loved the boys that he coached,” she said. “He saw the game as a metaphor for life and took coaching way beyond the game and into an opportunity to coach his players into being great men, citizens and community members.
“He touched them all and I'm so grateful he welcomed my son on to his team. He will be missed.”
Wilson’s son Leland also played for Opinsky. Both dads were on the coaching staff and both their sons played an instrumental role in delivering West’s first state championship in more than 40 years.
The Wilson and Opinsky families have known each other for years, stretching back to their Little League days.
That’s how it was for most of the West team, with players and coaches having spent several summers together on the baseball field.
They stuck together for the good times, and the bad.
“John was lucky enough to get to know a group of little boys in t-ball and then follow them all the way to college ball,” Wilson said. “He cherished his relationships with his players and as his physical condition deteriorated many of them came to his house to squeeze his hand, thank him and wish him well.”