So long, Coach Wooden

Tom Batters
Tom Wooden

WASHINGTON — Late in the game Thursday night, Dunlap catcher Tyler Cassidy double-clutched before throwing the ball, and his slight hesitation allowed the runner to steal second base.

From the dugout, Coach Tom Wooden barked, “Make a decision, Tyler.”

On the next pitch, Cassidy dropped to his knees and blocked a wild pitch, which kept the runner from advancing to third.

“Atta boy, Tyler,” Wooden hollered from the dugout. “Way to be tough out there. Nice play.”

That is a perfect example of what Wooden is all about, said his long-time assistant coach and close friend, Jack Esterdahl.

“He is tough when he needs to be, and he will let the kids know when he’s not happy,” Esterdahl said. “But, he is also quick to give praise when the kids do something good. He won’t let something negative linger for too long. He gets his point across, and then he forgets about it.”

After 26 years and more than 500 wins, Wooden is retiring. He coached his final game Thursday — a 12-2 loss to LaSalle-Peru in the semifinals of the Washington Sectional.

Esterdahl said it was unfortunate that Wooden’s career ended with such a lopsided loss, but Wooded handled it with class, just like he has always done — on and off the field.

“What you see is what you get with Tom,” Esterdahl said. “He is the same in life as he is in the dugout. He is a good man, and he always treats people with respect. Oh, he can get mad, but I’ve never seen him embarrass anybody or treat anybody poorly.”

Former Dunlap football coach Jeff Alderman, another long-time friend of Wooden’s, said he will miss being around Wooden, especially at practices (Wooden also worked as an assistant football coach for many years).

“Tom was such a great teacher,” Alderman said. “He coached our linebackers, and they were always so fundamentally sound because of all the work Tom put in at practice.”

When asked if he learned anything from Wooden over the years, Alderman said, “Yes, absolutely. I learned a lot from him. Mostly, he taught me how to be patient. These days, a lot of coaches like to yell and scream, and get in a kid’s face. Tom never did that. He never had to do that. He was as intense as any coach I’ve been around, but he had that rare ability to combine intensity and patience.”

Dunlap athletic director Duane Peterson has known Wooden for his entire coaching career.

“I coached against him way back when I was at Farmington. I remember his teams were always prepared to play,” Peterson said. “And, as I got to know him as a person, I was even more impressed. He was, and is, a real class act.”

Esterdahl said Wooden always took an interest in his players’ lives, and he enjoyed talking to them about all kinds of topics — not just sports.

“He developed relationships with his players. It didn’t matter if they were star players, or ones who didn’t play as much. He liked them all, and he really cared about them.”

My point of view

For most of Thursday’s game, I stood next to the Dunlap dugout, on the other side of the screen about four feet from Wooden.

I knew he would be the subject of my column, so I studied his actions and listened to his words during the game.

As LaSalle-Peru hitters clobbered hits and earned walks on their way to a four-run fourth inning, which made the score, 10-2, Wooden piped words of encouragement to sophomore relief pitcher Logan Schrader.

“Confidence, Logan ... Let’s go, kid ... Cut out the heart right here ... Deep breath and fire it ... Good spot on that pitch...”

When Schrader returned to the dugout after the long inning, Wooden looked him in the eye and patted him on the chest.

Schrader gave up just one hit in the next inning.

L-P led, 10-2, going into the top of the fifth inning when Dunlap came to bat.

I could see how a coach might get frustrated and loose his cool as a game like that got out of reach.

But, when the home plate umpire called several questionable strikes on the Dunlap hitters (one pitch was at least a foot outside), Wooden just turned the other way for a second, as if to bite his tongue, rather than let the umpire know what he thought of the erratic strike zone.

Off to a good start

The Eagles got off to a good start Thursday.

Dunlap starting pitcher Cody Hamilton held the Cavaliers to just one run in the first inning, despite giving up a leadoff triple. Alan Jablonski made a nice running catch in centerfield to save a run.

Cassidy led off the top of the second inning with a single. Zach Simmons belted a double to the right-center gap, and Cassidy scored to make it a 1-1 game.

Dylan Garrison then drove in Simmons with a single to put the Eagles ahead, 2-1.

Nate Borge beat out a bunt down the first base line to put runners on first and second base.

Hamilton laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners head to second and third base.

Logan Schrader walked to load the bases, but the Eagles did not score again in the inning or for the rest of the game.

Dunlap, which upset Limestone and Galesburg in the Regional to advance this far, finished the season with an 18-18 record.

LaSalle-Peru (32-3) went on to beat Washington, 11-1, to win the Sectional title.