Building a winning tradition where previously there was none is one of the toughest tasks in sports, but Elgin Community College baseball coach Bill Angelo continues to make commonplace what once seemed unlikely.
Angelo picked up career victory No. 500 Saturday afternoon when the Spartans drilled Morton 12-1 in six innings. ECC won the second game 4-3 to improve their coach's career record to 501-314, a healthy winning percentage of .614.
The Game 1 victory by ECC (15-10) was textbook Angelo. The Spartans hustled on every play and they were into every pitch, both on the field and in the dugout. Those are two staples of the philosophical ideology that helped transform a once-nondescript program into a perennial NJCAA Division II World Series contender.
"I tell every recruit that comes in here that this program has been built on two things: work ethic and enthusiasm," said Angelo, who lives in Elburn with wife Diane and their three children. "Those are the two things I want us to do better than everyone else."
Hard work and enthusiasm are the keystones of a still-expanding list of 57 rules that make up "The Spartan Way." Items on the list range from basic mental preparation to running out popups, but each rule serves the purpose of preparing the team to play baseball the right way, to leave it all out on the field.
Every time. No exceptions.
"If your heart's not in it, you can't play for this team. Simple as that," said Burlington Central graduate Drew Stover. "You can't play for Coach Angelo. That would be disrespecting him because he's such a good coach.
"There was no tradition before he got here. He changed the philosophy. He changed the mindset of his players. Now when you come here, you expect win."
Win Angelo's teams have, and at a prodigious clip. Entering this season, he has guided ECC to an average of 35 victories a year. He has coached the Spartans to five appearances in the NJCAA Division II World Series, five Region IV championships, 13 straight sectional titles and six Skyway Conference crowns.
His best team might have been the 2005 edition. That club went 54-10 and finished third at the World Series. "That was a fun year," said a grinning Angelo.
Here are a few arguably more important statistics to consider: more than 70 former Spartans coached by Angelo have gone on to compete at the university level; 18 have been named All-Americans; and 10 have been selected in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft.
The current Spartans don't have to look beyond their coach for an example of how success at ECC can translate to bigger things. Angelo himself played for ECC for two seasons (1990-91). Named all-conference and team MVP in 1991, he went on to play at Benedictine University and earned a degree in psychology.
ECC sophomore Justin Kalusa, a Larkin graduate named second-team all-American last season after he hit .424, has been approached by multiple professional scouts. The sophomore could become the 11th ECC player taken in the draft this June.
Kalusa was prompted to give Angelo's program a look by his high school coach, Matt Esterino, and he hasn't regretted the decision.
"I'd heard great things about coach Angelo, and I just wanted to see what he was all about," said Kalusa, whose 3-run home run ended Game 1 in the bottom of the sixth and sealed No. 500. "He's all about winning, all about tradition. It's a great environment."
By instilling a winning tradition, Angelo has made ECC a viable destination for former local high school players who hope to use the junior college experience as a springboard to further success. The 2012 roster includes graduates of St. Charles North, Larkin, Elgin, Bartlett, Kaneland, Streamwood, Burlington Central, Lake Park, etc. In fact, six of the nine Spartans in Saturday's starting lineup hail from Upstate Eight Conference schools.
"Of these kids who come here to play baseball, the percentage of them that either get drafted or get to go somewhere on a scholarship is just amazing," 11th-year ECC athletic director Kent Payne said. "We're a place where they can come and get their education for a couple of years, extend their baseball careers and many times earn a scholarship.
"I think it's special. It's unique. And (Angelo) has done a unique job here at ECC."
Angelo's players sing the same tune.
"He deserves this 500th win," said ECC catcher Ryan Richardson, a St. Charles North alum who homered, tripled and drove in 6 runs in Game 1. "He knows the culture around here in Elgin, knows the way things are. He's established a philosophy for Spartan baseball -- it's win, win, win. He's a great coach. Hopefully, there's a lot more to come."
Fortunately for the Fox Valley area baseball community, 500 wins could be just the start. ECC's successful baseball coach doesn't sound like he's going anywhere.
"I love it here," Angelo said as he leaned on the dugout fence between games. "This place has been very, very good to me. I mean, I played here. And ever since I played here it felt like home. I definitely have a strong connection here.
"I bleed Spartan blue, that's for sure."