TEUTOPOLIS — Before Justin Fleener became one of the most successful high school baseball coaches in Illinois history, he was a self-described "average baseball player" for Greenville University.
"I was an average hitter, I had average speed and I had an average arm. I just happened to be at the right sport at the right time," Fleener said.
Fleener was playing Legion baseball when a Greenville University coach came to watch the game to scout another player.
"He was there to watch somebody else play and I had a good ball game with a couple hits," Fleener said. "He asked me if I was interested in playing and I said sure. Greenville head coach Bob Marsh gave me the opportunities and I tried to make the most of them. I just caught a break to play."
Fleener went anywhere he was needed in his four years at Greenville, including time at shortstop, third base, outfield and relief pitching. That same mentality of doing anything for your team and taking advantage of every opportunity has carried over to Fleener's tenure as Teutopolis baseball coach. Fleener led his team to its fourth Class 2A state championship since 2010 this season, making him the Herald & Review's Area Baseball Coach of the Year, an honor Fleener has received eight times.
"It’s a really good feeling being a part of this team. There are some similarities with this year's team and (the other championship) teams, but it felt like it went off without a hitch this year," Fleener said.
T-Town's strong team nucleus came from four seniors who each contributed in their own way to the title run. Dawson Smith missed last season with an ankle injury and became the team's leader from the mound.
"(Dawson Smith) was our top pitcher and he answered the call when there was a big strikeout or a big at-bat," Fleener said. "When the year started out I had him batting in the middle of the lineup because when he came back he hadn’t taken many swings. Hitting a baseball is a tough skill and it takes a while to get that back. He started seeing the ball better and so he went to the top of the lineup."
Tyler Runde had been the Wooden Shoes' lead-off batter, but adjusted to wherever Fleener needed him.
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"Tyler filled that second base spot for us and I moved him to shortstop whenever Dawson would pitch and I moved him down the order a bit and it seemed to relax him a little," Fleener said. "He’s one of the fastest guys on the team and we tried to exploit that as much as we could."
Basketball standout Clint Weber was an imposing presence on the diamond at 6-7.
"Clint turned out to be a very athletic baseball player. He will go on to play college basketball (at Lake Land College) but he really came along and showed his athleticism in baseball and was second on the team in hitting behind Dawson," Fleener said.
Brayden Will brought much-needed energy to the dugout.
"Brayden was also coming off some injuries and he was integral part of the team and he was supportive of all the guys. He would do whatever was asked of him," Fleener said.
While the seniors laid the bedrock, Fleener was also happy with the improvement from underclassmen.
"I like to see that kind of maturing process taking place and I’m seeing the sophomores who were on the second-place team (from 2018) who were juniors this year starting to take some leadership roles. They will be ready to take those captain roles next year," he said.
Since the switch to four classes in 2008, Fleener's six trips to the state championship game are the most of any team in the state, but he sees the accomplishment entirely a team honor.
"With all the success that we have had, I have always felt that it is a team effort coming from everybody in the Teutopolis area," he said. "The kids have put in their time and the parents are fully supportive of the players and the coaching staff. This has worked really well right now. I have a wonderful family that supports me and I have a lot of people to be thankful for."