If ever a new coach had his work cut out for him, it’s Steve Henry, who took over White Bear Lake baseball in 2018.
While most other Bear sports have done well, the baseball team has averaged 6.6 wins against 15 losses over the last 13 years. The last winning season was 2011 when the Bears finished 11-10. This season, the Bears were 3-19 despite having a pitcher, Trent Schoeberl, good enough to be a Mr. Baseball finalist.
In recent years, the top athletes in the school have mostly avoided baseball. One problem, at least in scuttlebutt picked up for this article, is that the local youth and Legion programs have not been on the same page as the high school team as other sports’ organizations are.
Henry, a burly, bearded fellow affectionately dubbed Coach Hank by peers and players, is determined to change that. His top assistant is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played on the last strong Bears team in 2005.
“Coach Hank has been working hard to get the baseball program back going in the right direction,” said Brian Peloquin, activities director, who hired him. “I agree that there has been a disconnect between the youth, high school and summer programs. Hank has spent a significant amount of time building the bridge between (them).”
The Bears were 5-16 in Henry’s first year (one highlight was a win over state champion Stillwater), then slipped to 3-19 this year.
“This spring was tough from a won-lost standpoint,” Peloquin said, “but sometimes it is necessary to take a step or two back in order to move an organization forward.”
This summer, one significant change made was departing from VFW and Legion ball in favor of joining other Suburban East Conference teams in U18 and U16 teams. The U18’s play under the MN Pop organization. Henry coaches the U18’s, which have 2-3 record and will resume play Saturday after a long July 4 layoff, and Fitpatrick’s U16’s have a 7-5 mark.
“As a history teacher,” Fitzpatrick said, “I have great respect for what the Legion and VFW stand for. But for baseball, we found that some of our best players were choosing club teams instead of Legion or VFW. With this setup, we can double-roster them and they can practice and play sometimes with us.”
Henry was an assistant for five years in a very strong Wayzata program (state champs in 2016). Knowing what a good metro baseball program looks like, he quickly perceived what was lacking here.
“The program did not have any direction or a plan to be successful,” he said. Without that direction, participation fell in both the youth and high school programs, “setting them back for years.”
Henry started by introducing a mission statement and a set of core values.
“Things like captains practices, working hand in hand with the youth program, a web site, and using social media, starting a booster club, fixing up the fields, and ultimately, teaching the players what it takes to work toward a consistent program.”
That’s what Henry is implementing, with help from his staff, the school and parents. He has also made a point of enticing players who had quit baseball to come back.
“Hank is dedicated,” Fitzpatrick said. “He works on fields, works with kids, conducts camps, sits in on board meetings. He is working his tail off with the youth association.”
Fitzpatrick was a backup player as a junior in the 2005 team that went to state and was a pitcher on the 2006 team that went 12-12.
“In grade school, half our team was on a team that won regionals and played in a Cal Ripken World Series, and the other half played for a Little League team that also went to regionals,” Fitzpatrick said. “We had a lot of athletes then. Good hockey and basketball and football players would come out for baseball.
“Now, so many good athletes go out for track, where Tom Paulson runs a great program. Lacrosse is also very strong. Baseball just needs a push; that’s the reason I came back.”
Fitzpatrick, who applied for the head coach job that Henry got, was asked by Henry to join the staff. “When Hank told me his plans, I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ Hank also brought Aaron Turner from the Wayzata staff. We want to be the ones who change the culture and turn the program around.”
Henry grew up in Hermantown, where he played baseball, hockey and football. He continued in baseball at College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and with a town team, mainly as a pitcher, although he played several positions.
Prior to his first head coaching job, with the Bears, he learned a lot at Wayzata. “The five-plus years (there) helping grow the youth program, summer programs, and high school program really paid off,” he said. “I was a part of a lot of first's for the baseball program at Wayzata.”
Henry is a Level 5 Special Education Para in the Mounds View district, working at an Alternative Learning Center with high school kids. Along with coaching baseball, he’s the Bears junior varsity boys hockey coach.
After moving to Shoreview when he got married, he became friends with a White Bear Lake youth hockey coach and was invited to join the Bantam AA staff. He helped them win their first state championship and developed an affinity for White Bear Lake. “We had a great time and I met a lot of amazing people,” he said. “It reminded me of where I grew up, Hermantown. White Bear Lake had that small town feel with the pride to match.”
Looking for a baseball position in the area, he saw the Bears opening and jumped at it. (The two previous coaches were Jeff Wagner, who had the 2005 state team and stayed until 2011, and Matt McLaughlin, who coached through 2017.)
Fitzpatrick, asked if there’s any encouraging signs, noted that the youth participation numbers are edging up. He added that an 11’s AAA team was unbeaten, and a 14’s AAA team won a tournament. Small steps! While there’s no quick fix in building up a sport where you need at least a dozen capable and dedicated athletes, including several who can pitch, Henry gives every indication he’s in it for the long haul.