Will County baseball fans should not sleep on our neighbors to the south. WillCountyBaseball.org traveled through southern Will County with visits to Wilmington, Beecher, and Reed-Custer. All three programs have built winning traditions at schools with enrollments of 500 or less. And all three teams play at first class facilities that provide idyllic baseball settings.
Wilmington won two state championships in 2003 and 2005, and Wilmington product Tanner Roark has established himself as a legitimate major league starter for the Washington Nationals. Head Coach Mike Bushnell is in his second season with Wilmington. We caught up with Coach Bushnell on a gorgeous April 22nd night at as he prepared his team to play Westmont. He’s making every attempt at keeping his baseball players happy and loose during a long season that overlaps other sports. Wilmington’s enrollment is just under 500 students. Bushnell’s task is keeping baseball an attractive option for Wilmington’s best athletes.
WCB.org: Coach, what are some things that make your program and your baseball philosophy distinctive?
“As far as philosophy and style go I emphasize playing relaxed. Going out there playing loose. Being comfortable. How do you play comfortable? By working on what you may be struggling at. Also, just having a good time. Baseball can be a very long, dragging season. It can be a long game at times, so we like to mess around a little bit. On Thursday or Friday, whatever day is available, we usually do a themed practice. Just something goofy. It could be pajamas, it could be costumes. It could be a beach day. Last week someone showed up in swimming trunks. Someone else showed up in a lifeguard’s uniform. We’re kind of going with that Joe Maddon approach.
“I’m trying to start a new tradition. We started something new this year. I went out and bought a wrestling belt – a legitimate wrestling belt, like WWE style. After every win we hand it out to who we thought was player of the game. They get the belt. They sign it. They get to have the belt and bring it home and wear it to school until the next game.”
WCB.org: Baseball programs are always battling to keep their players inside the district. What are some things that you do in Wilmington to improve community outreach?
“I’m really thankful that we don’t have that big of a situation here at Wilmington losing players. I’ve only been here for two years. This is my first year as head coach. What you do is promote little things throughout the year even in the winter if you’re doing camps.
“You show face at those youth games, too. You might go to a youth game and talk to the kids a little bit. We do a fundraiser in the offseason which is a kind of a meet and greet thing for parents and friends of Wilmington baseball over at a local restaurant/pub. It’s a good way to kind of keep the whole community involved with the program. And that’s the most important thing – being available and showing face.”
WCB.org: The coaches from around the county all deal with summer travel teams a little bit differently. How is the situation for you in the summer?
“As far as local baseball in Wilmington – not many people are familiar with certain travel teams. They may get on a team just to play games. Something that we haven’t done in a while that I’m bringing back this year is a summer league team. Just to get us some games. Though, if any of those kids ask about certain travel teams, I kind of promote it.
“There’s not much availability here besides the ten games we play in our summer league. So if they can get on a team – go for it. It’s very difficult at a school this size because all the athletes are shared among all the sports. Most kids are three sport athletes. So in the summertime it’s very hard to get a lot of games in because those kids are doing basketball camp or football stuff. Then they have baseball games. If they play on a summer baseball team they have a full schedule. If they ask about travel ball I ask what team it is, but I’m all for it.”
Wilmington is 13-11 right now, and 5-7 in a nasty Interstate 8-South Conference. Reed-Custer, Manteno, Coal City, and Hersher are all having outstanding seasons. Coach Bushnell knows that walking this gauntlet of conference games will prepare the Wildcats for the one and done tension of the state tournament.
Team photo courtesy of Head Coach Mike Bushnell