Steve Nerland became a baseball fan when he was 13 or 14 and his family moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage in the 1960s. Now 70, Nerland remembers forging a connection with the game through the Armed Forces Radio Network, which served Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base.
“They broadcast a game of the day from different venues,” he said, “… and I started listening to baseball.”
Fast forward one generation, replace AM radio with cable TV, and the game captures the love of another Nerland boy.
“I can just remember growing up, he had SportsCenter on and ESPN on all the time,” 38-year-old Taylor Nerland said. “As a kid you kind of rebelled a little bit against it — ‘Aghh, SportsCenter again’ — but I’d find myself at the kitchen table watching highlights at 10 o’clock before going to bed. You find yourself wanting to see more.”
Taylor Nerland began his sixth season as the head coach of the South Wolverines high school baseball team Saturday with a 77-22 career record. The 77 wins rank him third all-time in the Cook Inlet Conference.
He’s seven victories away from earning a share of the No. 2 spot — held by his dad, whose Service High teams went 84-52 from 2001-12. Chugiak coach Bill Lierman is the winningest coach with 97 victories as he enters his 14th season.
“He’s gonna pass me this year,” Steve said.
Both Nerland men have won a state championship, Steve in 2001 and Taylor in 2016.
Taylor lauds his dad for the camaraderie he developed within his teams, for teaching him to be unwavering once he makes a decision, and for teaching him to bat left-handed even though he was right-handed.
Steve admires his son for making strong connections with players, for understanding and managing the expectations that come with a deep roster of players and for the contributions he’s made to Anchorage youth camps.
“He runs our youth camps,” Steve said. “A hard-core baseball guy like me, we would have camps and (baseball) was all we’d do. He said, ‘Baseball for six hours a day is too much for 6-year-olds; we can do running, we can do other things.’ He keeps the kids engaged and having fun.”
Steve Nerland, a fourth-generation Alaskan who graduated from West High in 1968, has his fingerprints all over Anchorage baseball. He’s the founder and president of the Alliance for the Support of American Legion Baseball, which made sure there was a season last summer even though American Legion baseball was canceled nationwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He galvanized efforts to install turf fields at schools all across the city and has been integral to numerous improvements at Mulcahy Stadium, including the addition of a turf infield.
He and his wife, Debbie, are parents to daughter Kelly and son Taylor. Steve seemed to always be coaching baseball or playing softball, and while Kelly went to some of the games, her interests were elsewhere. But Taylor loved going to games.
“His over-40 softball games, I’d be watching those games and shagging balls, trying to get as much gum I could from foul balls,” Taylor said.
When he wasn’t chasing down foul balls and turning them into the concession stand for a free piece of gum, he saw how much camaraderie there was on his dad’s teams.
“They were all friends, so maybe that’s crossed over into the way I coach my teams,” Taylor said.
He saw the same thing years later when he started helping his dad coach: “I remember the connection he tried to make with each player, and have them think of it as a family or brotherhood rather than a team.”
Steve coached Taylor through Little League T-ball, coach-pitch, majors and juniors. For a while as a little kid, Taylor swung the bat cross-handed, eliciting a series of commands from his dad to change his grip.
In a family video made for Steve and Debbie’s 25th anniversary, there’s footage of a young Taylor and Kelly playing.
“He has a little plastic bat in his hand,” Steve said, “and Kelly was repeating, ‘Change your grip! Change your grip!’ “
Maybe the biggest piece of instruction from dad to son was that which turned the right-handed Taylor into a left-handed hitter.
“Always get them a step closer to first base,” Steve explained.
After graduating from Service High in 2000, Taylor went to Victor Valley College in California to study business and play baseball. He injured his shoulder early in his freshman season, had surgery and came home to begin rehabbing.
Steve was in his first season as the Service head coach that summer, so Taylor started helping. The Cougars won the high school state championship and the Legion state championship.
Taylor still wasn’t able to throw by the end of the summer, so he enrolled at UAA. He played a couple of seasons with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, helped out with Alliance baseball camps, decided he wanted to be a teacher and a coach and changed his major from business to education.
A few years later, after becoming a P.E. teacher at South High, he was hired to coach the boys basketball team.
“The first call was to my dad,” Taylor said. “I told him, ‘You’re my assistant and I’m not going to take no for an answer.’ ’’
The student-becomes-the-master role reversal worked smoothly, but the two have never learned how they would respond as rivals. They have never coached against each other. Steve retired from coaching baseball in 2012; Taylor became South’s assistant coach the next year and the head coach in 2015.
“One of the things I do miss are the after-game discussions with him and other coaches,” Steve said. “Now I’m just a fan. I can show up in the second inning and leave in the fifth inning if I want.”
Cook Inlet Conference career baseball wins
97 — Bill Lierman, Chugiak *
84 — Steve Nerland, Service
77 — Taylor Nerland, South*
69 — Doug Henie, Chugiak
59 — Ken Wooster (four schools)
57 — Chris Williams, Bartlett/South
53 — Tim Rumfelt, Service
47 — Willie Paul, Service*
46 — Brad Lauwers, Dimond
Source: Alaska Legion Baseball