Given Byron High School's prowess in a multitude of sports, it hardly seems possible the school was once awful at baseball.
That was the case until Dale Hartman arrived on the scene.
This coming school year will be his 25th working in the Byron School District, where he teaches fifth grade. In his second year, Hartman wanted to coach, and had his eye on a sixth grade boys basketball coaching position.
It didn't go well. Two candidates with varsity coaching experience were also interested, and Hartman didn't even get an interview.
The next year, however, opportunity came knocking. The varsity baseball coach left, and there was little interest in the job. Hartman had played baseball at Mount Carroll High School for 2 years, and was an assistant at Galena for a year while he did his student teaching.
That was good enough to get the varsity baseball job at Byron, where the football and basketball programs were king. The baseball team had won just six games the year before Hartman arrived.
"My No. 1 goal going in was change the attitude," Hartman said. "It was the weak sister. There was a bad expectation that losing was the way it was, that's how it had been, and I wanted to change that attitude."
The Tigers were 9-14 in Hartman's first year, an improvement of three wins, but that was just the beginning.
"The second year I started preaching that wasn't good enough any more," Hartman said. "Being close and in games wasn't good enough. The second year we were 18-3, and we took off from there."
Hartman coached the Tigers for 16 seasons and amassed a 314-147-1 record, with eight conference championships, seven regional titles and two sectionals. Byron also advanced to state twice, in 1995 and 2001, and placed second in the first of those two trips.
Among his honors was induction into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012.
Hartman is also in the Northwest Illinois Sports Hall of Fame, class of 2004, a nod to his days as a Mount Carroll Hawk.
He was a four-sport (football, basketball, baseball and track) athlete, and only when pressed was willing to talk about some of the highlights. There was an overtime win over Aquin in the first round of the football playoffs as a junior, remembered by locals as the "Mud Bowl" in which both of the Hawks' touchdowns were on defense.
There were the basketball games in the Mount Carroll gym affectionately known as the "Snake Pit." And most important, there were friendships he's made with teammates and the athletes he's coached.
"The joy of the wins and the sting of the losses, that will go away after time," Hartman said, "but hopefully if you've made an impact, those relationships will still be there."
Dale and Annette Hartman, and sons Zeke, 20; Ty, 18; and Devin, 17, have lived in their current house, on a hill just off the intersection of Routes 52 and 64, since 1998. They lived in Lanark before that, but with a growing family, needed room to roam.
"When the boys started hitting wiffle balls and golf balls off our neighbors' houses," Hartman said, "it was time to move."
The house sits on five acres, and is a sportman's paradise. Four oak trees in the front yard are positioned perfectly to serve as four bases for a baseball diamond, as well as goalposts for 2-on-2 football games.
There's a basketball hoop out back, complete with a cement slab, where the boys were able to hone their skills before becoming Eastland Cougars. One end of the yard to the other stretches to about 150 yards, and serves as a good par 3.
"We hit drivers across the road all the time," Zeke said. "In the fall, after the corn has been picked, we go over there with a 5-gallon bucket and bring them all back."
The Hartman boys have used the experiences at home to help them at Eastland. Each has three state finals appearances either as part of basketball and/or baseball teams, as well as the state golf finals.
Dale has also coached four teams that have been at state – two as the head baseball coach at Byron and two as an assistant baseball coach at Eastland.
"We've been blessed in a lot of ways," Dale said.
Family: Wife, Annette; sons Zeke, 20; Ty, 18; Devin, 17
FYI: Teacher in Byron for past 24 years. ... Posted 314-147-1 record in 16 seasons as Tigers' varsity baseball coach. ... Currently as assistant baseball coach at Eastland