Vernon Hills baseball coach Czarnecki ready to step down after 19 seasons
In some ways, the decision couldn't have been easier.
In others, it couldn't have been more difficult.
After 19 seasons, Jay Czarnecki stepped down recently as the head baseball coach at Vernon Hills High School.
Czarnecki was the first, and has been the only head coach for the Cougars since Vernon Hills opened its doors in 2000.
"To be a part of something from the ground up is very unique," Czarnecki said. "To decide to step away, that tugs at you emotionally. This is a lot to give up."
That is the side of Czarnecki, the son of a longtime high school head coach, that is having a hard time with this.
He dreamed of being a high school head coach ever since he watched his dad coach baseball at Reavis High School in the south suburbs.
Ronald Czarnecki coached high school baseball for 25 years, and even coached Jay, a shortstop who graduated from Reavis in 1991.
"I always wanted to be a high school head coach," Czarnecki said. "My dad turned a program around, he took that program downstate, he had an impact on so many kids and I saw how much respect people had for him. In my mind, I wanted to get to that level, too."
Having rolled up 379 career wins and six regional championships, while receiving the support of the administration as well as dozens of former players who have reached out in the last week with well wishes and fond memories, Czarnecki believes he may have gotten close to that level, too.
But even that wasn't enough to override his concerns about moving forward into another season.
Czarnecki had been contemplating his future for quite some time, feeling the grind of organizing and managing and planning for a high school baseball season a little more with each passing year.
"Really, this decision has been a long time coming," Czarnecki said. "It's a grind to run a baseball program. My philosophy has always been to add something small to the program each year. You add something, you add something and before you know it, after almost 20 years, it takes an exorbitant amount of time to maintain everything you've added and still add more.
"You sacrifice a lot of time with family. I started to wonder how long I wanted to keep it up."
Czarnecki was firmly committed to guide the Cougars through the spring of 2020. That's when his son J.J., a relief pitcher and utility player, would be a senior.
Czarnecki had a special tie not only with J.J., but with all of his classmates.
While coaching the Vernon Hills varsity, Czarnecki also coached J.J's local travel team at the same time.
"I coached his age group since they were 9 or 10 years old and did that all the way through high school," Czarnecki said. "It was a lot of fun and I got really close to that group, as a coach, as a father, as a parent.
"That group of kids was really talented, too, and we were all excited to see what they were going to do in high school. Going into their senior year last spring, we had seven three-year starters returning. We knew we were going to have a really good team."
Then COVID-19 hit. The 2020 baseball season, along with every other IHSA spring sport, got canceled.
"All of our plans got blown out of the water," Czarnecki said. "I was so bummed for all of those kids. It was difficult for the kids, it was difficult for us as parents."
That profound disappointment only added to Czarnecki's inner turmoil about his future as the head coach.
"I really took some time to myself to reflect, and to make a mental pro and con list and in the end, I felt like this was the time to make a change," Czarnecki said. "I felt like this was the right thing to do, and it was the right time.
"I still love baseball and I still love coaching kids, but I am ready and happy to hand this off. If there is a time to get out, leaving when my son leaves may be as good of a time as any."
Czarnecki hasn't completely shut the door though.
He remains at Vernon Hills as a math teacher. He is also an assistant coach on the football staff.
And he is open to someday returning to the baseball staff, in a different role.
"If the new coach would be interested in having me, I would consider coaching lower-level baseball, or doing something like that, in the future," Czarnecki said. "I could see myself stepping away for a while and then coming back in a different role.
"I love baseball, and the kids, but a break would be good. I'm walking away with a lot of great memories and I'm really thankful for that."