The Cary-Grove baseball players encircled coach Don Sutherland following Saturday's 12-1, five-inning dispatch of Grayslake North, clapping in salute of his 500th career victory and taking turns shaking his hand.
The celebration's modest tone fittingly mirrored Sutherland's career-long, low-key approach. In fact, the humble 26th-year coach wasn't aware he had reached a milestone until told by his players. The victory improved his career record to 500-372 (.573).
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Afterward, he reflected on how things have changed since he became Cary-Grove's varsity baseball coach in the 1987-88 season.
"When I took over this school was small and kids did not commit to athletics," said Sutherland, a math teacher at the school since he graduated from Augustana in 1978 and the football program's defensive coordinator since 1982. "I got some kids to start committing to summer baseball and things like that. Then the school grew and we started winning in various sports. And winning is contagious.
"Now the kids come in wanting to win. They commit to the weight room and are much stronger than when I took over. You used to have to beg them to get in the weight room. Now it's an expectation.
"The reality of it is our kids commit to what it takes because they want to succeed like the other sports have, like our other teams have in baseball."
Sutherland's Trojans have won 5 Fox Valley Conference baseball titles, 5 regionals, 2 sectionals and placed fourth in Class 4A in 2009.
"It's an honor to play for him," said senior Zach Marszal, Saturday's winning pitcher who last fall led Sutherland's defense in the Class 6A football state title game against Crete-Monee. "He's been here for a long time and he's really been the foundation for Cary-Grove sports for the past 30 years. He's a great influence, both as a player and off the field. He's helped us the way he's helped many other players who have come through the program."
Marszal and his teammates appreciate their coach's even-keeled demeanor.
"He never really gets too over the top mad," he added. "You know when he's mad at you, but he's not really a yeller. He always tries to be the positive influence on you. He always tells you to keep your head up and keep going. He never really lets you get down on yourself."
Sutherland's team performed as instructed on yet another unseasonably cold spring morning. The Trojans outhit the Knights 15-5 and 8 were extra-basehits, including doubles by Marszal, Jeremy Vasquez, Matt Ewert, Daniel Vilardo, Dean Lee, Brandon McCumber and Matt Sutherland.
Knights starting pitcher Adam Gomski, who last Saturday threw a 5-hitter to beat McHenry, was chased after allowing 7 earned runs on 10 hits in 3 innings.
Marszal led the way at the plate and on the mound for Cary-Grove (10-2, 4-0). He went 4-for-4 with a triple, 2 steals and 5 RBI. On the bump he limited the Knights to 1 run on 4 hits in 4 innings to improve to 3-0.
"I told our kids I have a lot of respect for coach Sutherland because he's a class act, but I didn't necessarily want to give him his 500th," said smiling Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan, whose team slipped to 5-2 overall, 2-1 in FVC games. "But give their kids credit because they came out and hit the heck out of the ball. They were on us all the way through, every at-bat."
"We were seeing the ball really good, seeing it deep and getting good contact on the ball," said Ewert, who went 3-for-4 and drove in a run. "We waited for our pitch, attacked fastballs, waited back on off-speed and drove it.
"(Sutherland) is a really good coach so it's awesome to be part of the team that notched his 500th."