Elk Grove grad Copeland confident he can help NIU find baseball success
Newly-hired Northern Illinois baseball coach Ryan Copeland has had a couple of milestone events turn the wrong way quickly.
He helped lead Elk Grove High School to the Class AA state finals in 2006, but a quarterfinal game against Naperville Central was over in just an hour and six minutes. Copeland was on the wrong end of a 1-0 pitching duel.
"I think it was an IHSA record for a while (for shortest state final game)," he said. "I don't know if it still stands."
Then, after getting off to a nice start in the minor leagues with the Cardinals, a medical issue ended Copeland's pitching career quickly. He went 7-0 with a 1.86 ERA in short-season rookie ball at Johnson City, Tennessee.
"I had an OK year in Quad Cities as a starter," he said. "Then in 2012 during spring training, I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. I ended up having a blood clot in my collarbone area. I was in and out of hospitals for a while, eventually had a couple pretty major surgeries that made coming back pretty tough."
Copeland tried, but he was 24 at the time after playing four years at Illinois State, and knew time was running out.
"I got released that offseason and had a decision to make with regards to playing, whether it's at the independent level or trying to get back with an affiliated club," he said. "Or get into coaching, get my foot in the door, go back to school and get my degree. I chose the latter and it seems like it's worked out so far."
So maybe now things can change quickly in a positive direction. Northern Illinois has floundered in baseball since reinstating the sport in 1990. The Huskies haven't posted a winning record since 2011, and during the past three seasons, the record is 40-121.
The only NIU player to reach the major leagues since 1980 was Brian Schmack, the Rolling Meadows grad who pitched 11 games for Detroit in 2003.
Copeland built some confidence during four seasons as head coach of Division 2 Illinois-Springfield, where he went 131-38 and advanced to the eight-team NCAA finals in 2022.
"My time in Springfield, all we've done is won," he said. "So I think the first thing we need to do with our players is instill that mindset into them. It's been a while since Northern Illinois baseball has won at a high level, so we need to change the mentality.
"I've told every one of our guys I've talked to on our current roster that we expect to win next year. It's not a three, four, five-year rebuild. Certainly we have some work to do. We have to get more talented. We have to have better arm talent. We need to dominate the Chicagoland area in recruiting."
To that end, Copeland spent last weekend camped out at an event at UIC. He said he's barely been inside his DeKalb office since taking the job.
During his time in the Cardinals minor leagues, he played for current St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol and former manager Mike Shildt. He crossed paths with future major leaguers like Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha.
Turning Elk Grove into a winner was an accomplishment too. While recalling his high school days, Copeland joked about having to set aside a neighborhood rivalry before bonding as a team.
"When we got to high school, we kind of had a chip on our shoulder about going in there because we always thought there was a little rift between the Elk Grove kids and the Des Plaines kid," said Copeland, who grew up in Des Plaines. "You become friends quickly, but going into freshman year of high school, that was always the talk."