Building a championship culture isn’t easy in any sport. It definitely helps if you’re consistent from Day 1 — like Evanston baseball coach Frank Consiglio.
Consiglio earned the 200th victory of his coaching career Wednesday as the Wildkits blanked Niles West 4-0 in a Central Suburban League South division contest. Consiglio now ranks second all-time, behind Hall of Famer Ken McGonagle’s 433 wins, on the baseball list at ETHS with a mark of 200-136-2.
But while McGonagle coached 33 years to achieve his milestone, Consiglio has brought the program to another level in just 10 short years at the helm. He’s averaged 20 wins per season and was also responsible for guiding the Wildkits to just their second Elite Eight appearance in program history back in 2014.
Wednesday’s triumph at Niles West was typical of Consiglio’s tenure at Evanston, considering that the first run scored on a suicide squeeze bunt and the contest featured good pitching and good defense by the Wildkits.
Consiglio has always focused on the way the Wildkits play — not the number of victories.
“I’m really happy and this is really a nice milestone,” Consiglio said. “I just got finished telling the players that I was proud to be able to reach 200 with a bunch of grinders like them. Today was just the way I like to win, with dominant pitching and a good all-around game.
“The most challenging thing for any coach over a period of time is to be consistent, not just having a good team every 3 or 4 years. I’m most proud of the fact that we have built some consistency here with the way we play the game. That 20 wins per season (which the Kits have accomplished four years in a row leading up to their 16-10 mark so far this season) is a barometer for us. It’s a culture thing, because if you can build an ‘all-in’ appeal in your program, that’s how you get a winning culture.
“Now we’re at the point here where every year we have a chance to compete in the Central Suburban League, a chance to win a regional, and a chance to make some noise in the state playoffs.”
Consiglio and his staff of assistant coaches — Joe Knudsen, Anthony Cozzi and Kyle Gessert — have brought stability to the program along with the late Ross Freeland, who passed away due to cancer last spring. Knudsen has been part of the staff for all 10 seasons and has a different perspective, having competed against ETHS while he played for Niles West.
“When we played Evanston, we knew we were going to win two games,” said Knudsen, who graduated from Niles West in 1994. “Playing them was just a step up from playing a Maine East or a Niles North.
“Now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people from places like New Trier come up and say to me man, did you ever turn this program around! When we beat New Trier in the sectional (in 2014) I think that’s when people started to take notice of us. They found out you have to bring your A game any time you play Evanston. They know we’re going to do the little things well, like baserunning, bunting and 2-strike hitting.
“I came to Evanston because Frank asked me to, and I wanted to be part of turning around a program. It’s been a fun 10 years coaching with Frank. People don’t realize how hard he works for the kids. One of the biggest things he takes pride in is teaching, and what our kids do academically.”
Consiglio raised the bar as far as the program’s expectations — and kept it there. That’s the kind of consistency that players are looking for in any high school environment, according to the coach.
“My coaches have been with me for a long time and there’s a lot of consistency because we all know what the goals are program-wide,” Consiglio said. “It started with our off-season program and we tried to make it known to the kids that you’d have to put in the work if you wanted to be stronger and quicker and faster. At that time it seemed to me we were a step behind the other teams in the league.
“We had to figure out what it takes to win consistently and what our identity as a program would be. In Year 2 we changed our schedule and made it tougher and added some of the talented teams that we’d see in the sectional. I didn’t want our kids to ever show up at a sectional and feel they’re not as good as the other team. We wanted them to know that every time you play, you have to be at that level like it’s the playoffs.”
Consiglio’s emphasis on the fundamentals and his “small ball” approach helped gain respect for a program that was usually mired around the .500 mark throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The 1992 ETHS team coached by Matt Polinski advanced to the Illinois High School Association state finals and finished 20-14, losing in the state quarterfinals, but the Wildkits only won 20 games four other times in school history before Consiglio was hired.
The untimely death of Freeland cost Consiglio his “right hand man” and thoughts of the long-time assistant are never far from Consiglio’s mind.
“Usually as soon as I shake hands (after a game) my mindset is what we’re going to do for the next game. But when you experience a tragedy like what happened to Coach Freeland, it forces you to pause and reflect on the past. And it makes you think about everything you did together, not just the wins,” Consiglio added.
“Today I can pause and be grateful for a lot of things. Evanston is a tremendous place to teach and coach and it’s been a great learning experience for me here. It’s very challenging here, but there’s also a very supportive environment for a teacher and a coach. They really help you become consistent. From the coaching side, it all starts with (athletic director) Chris Livatino. He’s helped me tremendously and it’s hard NOT to be consistent when you see you have an AD who lives it every day and wants to be the best in so many different ways.”
Evanston rode the mound brilliance of junior Henry Haack to Wednesday’s milestone win. The right-hander, now 4-1 on the season, hurled six shutout innings, striking out 7 and allowed just 4 harmless singles on his way to a pitch count of 99. Joe Snapp took over in the 7th and struck out two of the four batters he faced.
The winners capitalized on 8 Niles West errors and only mustered three hits themselves. A squeeze bunt by Alex Moore plated pinch-runner Jake Snider with a run in the ETHS second, and four errors, a wild pitch and Harry Porter’s single produced a pair of insurance runs in the fourth.
Porter also played a role in the final run in the seventh, when he reached on an error, stole second, raced to third on a wild pitch and came home after a wild throw by the Niles West catcher.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.