Anyone who has lived in Will County for a generation or more remains aghast at the enormous growth the county has witnessed over the past 25 years. Will County’s population in 1980 was 324,000. Since then that number has more than doubled to an estimated 687,000 residents in 2015. Illinois has watched as all those cornfields have been bulldozed into so many beautiful subdivisions.
No baseball coach in Will County could describe the effects of this growth more than Minooka’s Jeff Petrovic. In 1990 Minooka’s population was about 2,300. Its 2017 projected population is more than triple that number at 7,200. Just like all that fertile farmland Minooka was ripe for growth, and baseball has been no exception. Petrovic could see that the seeds were sown; and over the past dozen years he has harvested a magnificent crop of baseball talent and success. Before a big Southwest Prairie conference game with Plainfield South WillCountyBaseball.org got the chance to talk to Petrovic. Coach Petrovic discussed his baseball program, its success, and how he keeps Minooka fertile for quality baseball.
WCB.org: What do think are some things that make your program special here at Minooka?
Coach Jeff Petrovic: “I’m sure a lot coaches feel like this about their programs, but I’m so happy to be at Minooka because we just have great kids here. Just really, really good people first. I think that the mentality of baseball has changed here.
“We’ve always been a good program. I can think back. I played here. I graduated from here in 1992 and played baseball here. And we were always a respected program. We were always good. I took over here in 2004, so this is my 13th year here. We hadn’t gone to a state tournament since 1964, and in the last 12 years we’ve gone twice. We have a third and a fourth place finish. We’ve gone to three or four super-sectionals, and a bunch of sectional championships.
“And I truly believe that the mentality has changed here, in that kids now believe they’re going to win. They expect to make a good postseason push. It’s amazing how kids will live up to your expectations in them. They get a little confidence from seeing the group in front of them do really well and they want to do the same thing. I just think that in the last dozen years we have kind of changed the expectations a little bit. I remember coming in and my assistant Jim Lamping said that in a good year we’ll win 20 games. Myself, and my two assistants have been together now for 12 years. And, in our first four years, we won over 30 games a year in a 35 game season.”
WCB.org: The competition for baseball players in Will County is fierce. What are some things that make Minooka especially attractive to incoming freshmen? And how do you keep kids in the district?
Coach Petrovic: “First and foremost we have a great school district. Kids get a great education here. I think it’s overlooked that we just got ranked in the top 500 schools in the country. You get a great education here, and we have great teachers here. The kids are surrounded by great people here. I think that sells Minooka a lot.
“We’re very competitive at almost all sports. I think that’s important when you consider losing players to one sport or another. As we move forward here I think we’ve stepped up all of our athletic programs which helps keep kids in our school district. We don’t go out and recruit kids.
“I think that success breeds more success. The kids in our feeder districts see us running a quality program. We have great junior high coaches. We have great summer league coaches around here. And they see what our program has done and I think that has helped encouraged kids to stay.”
WCB.org: Every coach we’ve spoken to does some type of community outreach. How do you maintain contact with baseball people, and the Minooka community overall?
Coach Petrovic: “We run a summer camp every year to bring the young kids in. I work pretty closely with some of the younger kids in the district. And I actually coach a summer team in Minooka. My son is 13. He plays on a travel team in Minooka. I’ve helped out with Minooka Little League since he was five years old. I’ve been able to be a part of that.
“I think people that are baseball-minded realize that we’re doing things right here. We do right by our kids. We treat all these kids like they’re our own kids. They don’t all play shortstop and bat third like a lot of people would like to. But they know, every day, that we care about them. And we treat them fairly. That’s all you can really expect out of coaches.
“We work on trying to have not just a great baseball player, but a great person. I tell kids that the most important thing to remember when they walk through the gate and want to be part of our program they have to be selfless, not selfish. It isn’t about you. It’s about the bigger picture. Caring about what the freshmen and sophomores are doing, and caring for your teammates. We have a really good atmosphere. Again, I think the driving force of that is we have really good kids here.”
WCB.org: One of the more interesting issues facing high school coaches is the influence of summer leagues and travel teams. Do you have specific ways you balance your players’ time between high school and travel baseball? And how many of your players play on travel team?
Coach Petrovic: “All of them. The deal with summer baseball is that it’s kind of a double-edged sword. In that, there’s so many teams out there that there’s obviously a place for everybody. And with 11 or 12 kids on a team everybody plays all the time and everybody gets a lot of at-bats. That’s great, but also people need to realize that a lot of those summer travel teams feed into every school district. So now, you might be one of 11 people on your travel team, but there’s seven travel teams that are feeding into a school district. There’s kids coming from all over. So, sometimes kids in the summer kind of get a false sense of where they fit into the big picture.
“Summer coaches do a great job of getting kids’ names out there. I think that’s it’s really become a big recruiting tool. You know, college coaches are playing right now. I have a great relationship with Illinois State. We sent several players down there over the last couple of years. Their assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Staloway was at one of our games the other day. It’s tough. They got in at midnight from New Orleans the night before, and he showed up at one of our games at 8:00 in the morning on a Saturday.
“The kids get to be seen in the summer. And then our phone rings and a college coach will say, ‘Hey, we’re seeing this kid in summer baseball. You see him for 40 games every year. What’s your take on him?’
“So, it’s great that they contact us. I mean most of the college coaches get in contact with the high school coaches right away and kind of get our take on the kids. And that’s good. Because we spend a lot of time with the kids. Sometimes they see them in one game or one showcase and they have to evaluate them quickly. Where we get to see them over the course of their high school careers. Hayden Laczynski, who is a sophomore shortstop for me this year, he came up as a freshman and played the full season. I’ll have coached him for 160 games before he leaves here. So, it’s easier for high school coaches to evaluate these players.
WCB.org: Do you think that kids get the wrong idea about summer ball? Maybe they think the only way they can get the attention of pro scouts is by performing well in summer leagues when actually it’s their high school coaches who can really help them get recruited by college coaches more directly.
Coach Petrovic: “I’ll preface it by saying this. These summer programs do a tremendous job. All these summer travel teams are great for kids. We tell our kids to go out there and get as many at-bats as they possibly can. We’d like to kind of limit our pitchers if they throw a lot of innings for us. It’s hard to roll right into summer and continue to throw that many innings.
“But there is no doubt these summer coaches do fantastic jobs. Just like every high school coach I know – they all do fantastic jobs. You can’t fault anybody for the way they run their programs whether it be summer or high school.
“My view is this – if you’re good enough you’re going to be found. We had Mike Foltynewicz in 2010. He’s a pitcher for the Braves. And it didn’t matter if he went here or Beecher or somewhere in the desert. They’re going to find that kid. Great players get found. Whether it’s for college or a pro team. The really good baseball players are going to get snatched up.
“Sometimes it’s those other kids you have to work for a little bit harder -the kids that really want to continue playing that need a push in the right direction. We make a lot phone calls here to try to reach out to see which colleges need a kid at a particular position. Do they need a left-handed pitcher? You just try to build those relationships. As coaches we work really hard to put kids in the right spot to be successful because we might be calling on that college again later. You don’t want to ever send a kid somewhere where you’re setting him up for failure.
“In my 12 years we’ve sent at least 60 kids to go on and play college baseball. That’s great because these kids love the game. It is a big part of our responsibility. But I also really like the kid that comes in and cares about Minooka baseball.
“I think sometimes that kids have these ideas that they’re only here to get to the next level. They’re only in summer travel baseball to get to the next level. I love the kid that plays every day because he loves to play baseball. Because he wants to help Minooka baseball win, to help his travel teams win. Those kids are not necessarily worried about where their particular experience will put them in the future. Those seem to be the kids who are really successful – the ones who play because they love the game and kind of let things fall where they may.”
Minooka finished an up and down regular season with a .500 record at 11-11-2; but they’ll be ready for their first Regional game against Normal West on Thursday May 26th at 4:30. Minooka fans will have to travel a long way to Moline to watch their team play. Petrovic knows that from here on out it’s one pitch at a time. Win or lose, Minooka has traveled miles on the baseball landscape, and there is no turning back for this 21st century Will County baseball powerhouse.