PEORIA — Surrounded by a swarm of reporters following Teutopolis' second Class 2A baseball state championship in three years, coach Justin Fleener's eyes glanced down the first base line to a grassy knoll in the outfield of Dozer Park last Saturday night in Peoria.
There, his players stood with their classmates and families for pictures as music blasted over the loudspeakers.
To the naked eye, it looked like Fleener's first time coaching a state championship baseball team, not his fourth. The success could easily feel like an old hat to a coach of a successful program, but Fleener said they all feel as good as the last.
T-Town has advanced to state seven times in the last 10 years with four state championships to show for it and a 57-6 postseason record in the last 12 years.
So just how does Teutopolis, with an enrollment of 316, according to the IHSA website, have a near-permanent residence at the state finals? Fleener won't take the credit, but current and former players say most roads lead back to the coach with a 517-119-4 record in 19 years at the school.
Fleener's fundamental-first method that's mixed with a laid-back personality is one ingredient in the cake. There's also the strong park district and junior high programs, a nearly year-round culture of baseball and a strong community emphasis that keeps players churning in year in and year out.
“I think its an accumulation of a lot of things," Fleener said. "I think it has to do with the kids putting in the time and effort to make themselves better, and the development of arms at younger levels and players at younger levels."
Of course, if there was a clear-cut answer for how to achieve the success, it would be on the wall of every coach's office.
“If you could sum it up easily, there would be more people doing it," said 2005 graduate Ryan Spencer, who also coached with Fleener in 2010. "There’s a combination of everything.
“I think it’s a lot of contributing factors, then you give somebody who has the skills and personality of Fleener the right atmosphere. You put somebody who is going to succeed into a good opportunity to succeed."
Each former T-Town player knows all too well the square drill — an infield drill focused on taking ground ball after ground ball. It's designed to keep fundamentals in line. In fact, fundamentals might as well be Fleener's middle name. They play a key role in his program.
“It all goes back to Mr. Fleener," said Derek Thompson, a 2011 graduate and two-time Herald & Review Area Baseball Player of the Year. "Everything was fundamental for the most part. He’s a great coach. Fundamentals were the main thing. He’s a really laid back coach. He gets the things done during the day.
“When I was with him, not many people like practice, but I like it because he was my coach. He made it fun. He didn't have the best athletes every year, but he got it done. Fundamentals, that’s what it came down to really."
The fundamentals are met with planning. Fleener doesn't wring his hands over the record in March and early April. Naturally, he wants to win any time his team plays. But those months are also a chance to see who is who, and to let the basketball players get back into a baseball mindset in a way that doesn't lend itself to injury. The big games come in May, specifically when regionals roll around.
“They know what you’ve got to put in," Fleener said. "They see the recipe that’s worked, or the one that’s working for us anyway. You’ve got to see swings, you’ve got to make throws and you’ve got to field ground balls. We work on that in practice and you’ve got to work guys up to that."
There's no question that Fleener gets talent year in and year out, but there's also the matter of knowing what to do with the talent. Freshmen and sophomores aren't thrust into the starting lineup too early. There's a wait-it-out process that includes learning from the bench.
“You can have the greatest all-star team in the world, but if you don’t have a coach to guide you in the right direction and practice the correct drills, your're not going to go anywhere," said Luke Niebrugge, a 2005 graduate. "He builds that team chemistry as well."
Fleener also garners respect. He doesn't stomp and march around a baseball diamond if something goes wrong — especially at state where the pressure is already high. Most players see him as an open ear, and someone to go to when they need. But he's also still the coach.
“It’s hard to describe Coach Fleener because he was easy to get along with, but at the same time that’s your coach and you don’t want to make him mad," Spencer said. "I feel like every coach has a hint of the line between respect and fear. He was always on the respect side, but if he was mad, you’re going to spend all practice running."
Said Thompson: “From the coaches I’ve had in the past, fundamentals are big, but he tries to interact with every player. He gets to know them. He’s very good at talking to the players — trying to get on the same page and trying to see it their way."
Baseball isn't the only athletic program to have success in town. The boys and girls basketball teams are a lock for postseason runs, and count softball in the mix, too. Track, volleyball, tennis, soccer and cross country have also fielded successful teams.
There's a community-wide buy-in for sports. During a middle of the day conversation with 2005 graduate Luke Niebruggee, he was headed back outside with his 5-year-old daughter to take swings on a wiffle ball. Park league baseball teams start around the age of five. There are few, if any, raw players for Fleener by the time they get to high school.
The tradition of sports trickle down throughout families.
“From the minute I’ve known about baseball and basketball, that’s all I ever did was play outside," Niebruggee said.
“There’s something to that," Spencer said. "My older cousins, they were all playing sports. It’s like a measuring stick. We played against them when I was younger."
Fleener said he keeps fairly hands-off with the programs at younger levels. If they need assistance, he'll sub in to help. But he trusts that talent is on the way. And yes, plenty of arms. The Shoes always seem to have a stable of arms ready to go in the postseason.
“The coaches in the park district programs in T-Town, the junior high coaches, the summer coaches, gear everything in preparation of the high school team," Fleener said. "Being able to go out there with some athletes and being able to put quality arms out on the mound, at any level you go to, it’s pitching."
'You dream it'
Fleener took over in 2000 after current Central A&M boys basketball coach Rob Smith had coached the Shoes to back-to-back state finals appearances. It wasn't as if Fleener took over a basement-dwelling program. He wasn't oblivious to the success the Shoes had had before he took over, and he saw neighboring Effingham St. Anthony enjoy back-to-back state appearances in 1991 and 1992.
But even a run like this is hard to predict.
“You dream it. You want to do it," Fleener said.
Players on the 2004 team agree that was a milestone year in the early parts of Fleener's tenure with the program. The Shoes advanced to super-sectionals in 2003 before making it to state in 2004. Then things changed. Suddenly, they expected to be back in the state tournament year after year. Sure enough, Fleener got his first state trophy in 2005, taking third place in Class A.
"I think they realized they could complete at that level, and they’d been doing it before," Fleener said. “It was just getting the kids. We had the talent there, it was just being able to get the right combination of things in line and developing the pitching."
Though the expectation existed for deep postseason runs, which includes nine straight sectional championships, it was hard to envision on Fleener's first state team.
“It’s crazy, first off," Niebruggee said. "It’s almost expected now. You expect supers every year, if not state. That’s how often they’re going. I never envisioned anything like it."