Illinois school alone at the top
Hinsdale Central High School’s 8 state championships is a feat that may never be matched by another Illinois school
Dan Jones and his fellow coaches were in the locker room preparing for football camp 17 years ago when they received the news. The baseball team at St. Charles, an athletics powerhouse just 14 miles north of Aurora, beat New Trier 12-3 to secure a Class AA state championship.The victory would be largely meaningless to Jones if it didn’t cap what was a storybook run for St. Charles. After clinching titles in four other sports — two in swimming and diving — the Saints had just won their sixth state championship, an Illinois High School Association record for a single school year.
“I remember saying, ‘Six state titles, that’ll never be broken,’” Jones recalls. “Little did I know that a little less than 20 years later, I’d be in the position I’m in now.”
Jones, now athletic director at Hinsdale Central High School, was at the state wrestling finals in February when he received a text from Activities Director Sally Phillip saying that the speech team had just won a state title, tying St. Charles’ record year. In the months prior, he had logged hundreds of miles across Illinois watching his boys cross country, boys soccer, girls tennis and both golf programs claim state titles. The speech championship pulled Hinsdale Central even, and over the next three months titles from the boys swimming and boys tennis teams would give the school eight on the year.
The Red Devils had raised the bar to a level that’s nearly unreachable for even the most distinguished athletic programs. If six state titles can stand untouched for nearly two decades, Jones can’t even imagine how long the new record could hold.
“Hopefully they don’t use that in my evaluation when we’re winning eight and then we’re not winning as much anymore,” Jones joked. “It was fun, and I’m so proud to be part of it.”
The Hinsdale way
Hinsdale sits 20 miles west of Chicago, an affluent community of 17,000 that values its sports as much as its education. Hinsdale Central is among the state’s 16 “gold medal” schools, a distinction given by U.S. News & World Report based on college readiness.
Its athletic achievements can be found throughout the school, most notably in the gymnasium where banners dating all the way back to 1909 recognize each of its state championships. A secondary banner accompanies the latest batch, honoring the school’s record-setting year.
Coaches at Hinsdale Central do not deny their reality. They admit wealth affords their students greater training and resources outside of school, and the school district’s budgets were largely unaffected by the economic downturn. But that alone doesn’t win championships.
Jones came to Hinsdale Central in 2012 from DeKalb High School. Like most athletic directors, he understands the majority of students do not have a future in sports, so his priority was to develop an atmosphere where football or soccer was an extension of the classroom.
“So if they get into a board room or they’re running a project for their company, they’re used to being a team player and making decisions,” Jones said. “They’re used to working with different personalities.”
Mike Konrad has been at Hinsdale Central just two years, but he already has a sense of the competitive aura emanating from the program. Konrad coaches both volleyball teams, and last year he led the boys to their first state tournament appearance.
Most coaches would be proud, and Konrad is certainly pleased with his team’s achievements, but he wants what other coaches have — a state championship. He describes a “healthy competition” among coaches at Hinsdale Central to succeed at the highest level, and that breeds a school-wide desire to always search for ways to improve.
“It’s not like you’re going to get recognized at an assembly for getting fifth in state,” Konrad said. “They really celebrate the winners here, and it’s pretty cool.”
Student-athlete development begins and ends with the coaches at Hinsdale Central. Some have been with the program more than 15 years and others just a few, but they all agree with the concept that their roles extend beyond the field.
If they didn’t, chances are they wouldn’t be at Hinsdale Central. Jones interviews prospective coaches with a shortlist of mandatory qualities, and chief among them is their ability to teach.
“I make a lot of reference calls to find out what kind of teacher they are,” Jones said. “It’s funny, sometimes I get questions asking, ‘Are you doing research on their (classroom) teaching?’ I say no, it’s all part of coaching.”
The academic side is valued too, and that’s why a strong majority of Hinsdale Central coaches are also teachers. Jones taught history and geography while coaching in DeKalb, and the dual roles allowed him to interact with student-athletes off the playing surface.
Coaches at Hinsdale Central feel the same and they agree the relationships forged in the classroom carry over to the playing field. It also gives them a sense for how their athletes act and perform when they’re not in uniform.
“This is a great school because of the desire for achievement in all areas,” said Nick Latorre, the boys basketball and girls golf coach. “They strive to do well academically, they want to get into the top schools and they want to do well in whatever sport they’re in. I love that aspect of being here.”
A critical part of Jones’ mission to create and foster one of the state’s best coaching staffs is continuing education. When he came to Hinsdale Central, professional development was a priority so he set aside funding in the budget to make it possible. The coaching industry is always in flux with changing strategies, technologies and management of sports, and Jones wants his staff to be at the forefront of innovation.
Football coach Dan Hartman is one who takes that philosophy to heart. He visited the University of Oregon twice — once when the football program was led by Chip Kelly and again under Mark Helfrich — and last year his staff made a trip to Auburn. Hartman, 31, also has two master’s degrees and all of that education is as relevant on the field as it is in the classroom.
“A lot of those things we use on the field, like repetition and the way we chunk information,” said Hartman, who earned his master’s degrees in education leadership and reading. “Especially with my reading master’s, I applied some of the lessons to how we teach offensive and defensive schemes. Everything is word association, so a lot of that has transferred over.”
The model athlete
Jones insists the work ethic and pride in athletics was established well before he came to Hinsdale Central. Between activities and sports, he said 80 percent of the school’s 2,800 students participate in extracurriculars, and most do so without pressure from administrators like Jones.
That’s not easy, especially for a school that last year sent 99 percent of its graduating students off to college. Coaches admit they ask a lot of student-athletes with weekly practice and competition schedules, but that’s only because the students have displayed the ability to handle it.
In situations where athletes must prepare for major exams, Jones said all coaches understand that classroom work takes precedence over sports. But there are times they need to be reminded.
“There is give and take between the coaches and athletes to try to find the middle road,” Jones said. “Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t and we have to be reminded.”
Despite the delicate balance of academics and sports, many students manage to participate in multiple sports. Jones said the program’s philosophy is to “share athletes,” and coaches openly communicate with one another to avoid conflicts with other teams.
Jones hosts a head coaches meeting once a month, and he believes that has assisted the program in avoiding problems. Coaches have the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another, and that dialogue prevents everything from facility conflicts to struggles with dual-sport athletes.
“We’re starting to hear from college coaches that they want to see a football player under a different stress, like shooting a free throw in a tied game,” Jones said. “They want to see them competing year in and year out, and I think our athletes are starting to get that message too.”
Bob Barber knows the community better than most, and he agrees the Hinsdale culture is unique. Barber, the boys and girls swimming coach, graduated from Hinsdale Central in 1992 and began coaching at the school seven years later.
Barber said the energy comes from everywhere. The parents support the school, and even club sports programs in the community maintain constant dialogue with high school coaches. The prep coaches are eager to create one of the top programs in the state, and the athletes are just following the lead of those around them while honoring the tradition of those who came before them.
“We’re blessed with so many talented athletes, and it makes my job easier in a way because you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to make them,” Barber said. “But it also makes it harder in another way because you worry about how you’re going to make them happy.”
Nobody at Hinsdale Central can say they expected to set an Illinois record for state championships, but at the same time nobody seems all that surprised. The pieces have always been there, it was just a matter of putting them together at the right place and the right time.
Jones laughs when he thinks back to that day 17 years ago, sitting in the locker room at DeKalb High School questioning whether anyone would ever be worthy enough to match St. Charles’ six state titles. Today, he finds himself asking a similar question about the new record.
“I don’t think so,” Jones said, pondering whether another school could ever win nine championships in a single year. “I’d love to say it’s never going to be beaten and in 40 years when I’m retired I can say we still hold that record, but if someone breaks it, more power to them.
“Of course, every record was made to be broken. But it’s going to be very difficult.”