If Rene Valdez saw the scene at his indoor facility Monday night, his inner monologue likely would have been, "If only it was this easy."
The Rock Falls Rockets took advantage of Sauk Valley Community College's large space.
"It's just a matter of getting them here," Valdez said. "There's no other college this size with an indoor facility like this. On-campus housing, we've got the whole package here. That's why it's such an easy sell out of district. You go to Puerto Rico or Canada, put it on paper and they're like, 'Man, this is the best option I have.' "
In his eighth season – sixth as head coach – Valdez finally seems to have broken through, in terms of recruiting local.
Of the 28 players on his 2013 roster, 11 hail from Sauk Valley schools. Six more graduated from schools within 100 miles of SVCC, meaning that more than 60 percent of his players could drive less than 2 hours to visit their parents.
Last year was the first time that percentage crept over 20.
"But we weren't successful. We were down on arms and grades and that kind of thing," Valdez said.
During the program's hey-days?
"When we were successful, nobody knew any of our players," Valdez said. "Ninety percent of them were from out of district."
He's hoping he's achieved the best of both worlds: success that breeds success, as local ballplayers see their former competitors banding together and winning.
"When you're building a program with this number of local guys, that's where the tradition begins," Valdez said.
The key ingredient to the local flavor – albeit something of a Catch 22 – is seeing the locals already on the roster. So Valdez controlled what he could, adding coaches to his staff for whom his prospects had played for years.
He tabbed assistant Noel Aponte, who has worked with youth programs in Sterling, and whose daughters, Sophia and Priscilla, found success at Sterling High School. After that, Sophia was an assistant coach for the Skyhawks' softball team last season.
Noel Aponte's 21 years in the Navy are a huge bonus.
"The conditioning is intense in the beginning," Valdez said. "He's very good at breaking kids down and building them back up."
Before officially adding Chris Davis as an assistant, Valdez landed his twin sons, Evan and Brady. The team has always made a point to be a fixture in the community, landscaping for churches and reading to kids, for instance.
"But we did it with no-names to the community," Valdez said. "Now, you've got the tie-in."
When Christ Lutheran School in Sterling conducts a fundraiser this spring, kids can win a Skyhawks baseball basket, complete with apparel, lunch with Evan Davis and an hour of lessons from Sauk's leading hitter.
On the diamond, allegiances are strong. Brady Davis, a Sterling graduate, can't help but laugh when he remembers Twin City battles with former Rockets who are now fellow Skyhawks.
"It's still kind of goofy playing with Casey McAllister," he said. "Instead of him tearing it up against us, he's tearing it up for us."
The current Rockets' top two starters, Eddie Nelson and Jace Anderson, recently committed to Sauk, too. Amboy graduate Tyler Huffman is an assistant captain. The Davises did some recruiting of their own, convincing former Morrison standout Corbin Blean to play after taking off a season from baseball.
"It's really awkward, because in high school, we were always competing against each other and wanting to beat each other," Evan said. "Now we can work together, and it's a bond that's even stronger."
Sauk Valley products on Sauk roster
Player Yr. Pos. High School
Cody Behrens So. RHP Newman
Corbin Blean Fr. IF Morrison
Evan Davis So. OF Sterling
Brady Davis Fr. OF/RHP Sterling
Tyler Huffman So. RHP Amboy
Jeremiah Johnston Fr. OF Sterling
Casey McCallister So. C Rock Falls
Tyler Newman So. IF Dixon
Zach RexFr. IF Amboy
Andrew Schaver Fr. IF Morrison
Justin Wolber Fr. LHP Sterling
Valdez and his staff have re-installed an old tradition. Read about what happened when his players saw red at saukvalley.com/blogs/extra-extra