No one could blame Jason Mead for being a bit rusty when it comes to swinging a baseball bat.
The volunteer assistant for the Dixon varsity baseball team had spent the winter coaching the Dukes' basketball team to 23 wins, a second-place finish in the NIB-12 West, and the program's first regional title since 1986. He is SVM's boys basketball coach of the year.
Hitting practice ground balls hadn't been on the top of his mind when basketball gave way to baseball season. According to junior Cal Jarrett, an SVM first-team basketball player and a University of Cincinnati baseball recruit, that first day at baseball practice didn't go real well.
"His skills with the fungo bat hitting grounders just weren't where he wanted them to be," Jarrett said. "So practice ends, and I go down and shoot baskets, and it's like 2 hours later, and he's still up there practicing hitting ground balls. That's just the kind of coach he is."
Jarrett was a tall, gangly freshman when Mead came to Dixon, taking over a basketball program on the endangered list.
During his first summer camp, three players showed up. The first summer tournament, he had to rouse a player from bed to have five, and during the tournament, one of the players got hurt.
"We played a 2-2 zone," Mead said. "When I came here, I didn't know that a school of 800 students could have a basketball program in such condition. My first year, we had 13 kids in the entire program."
The reasons for the Dukes' downfall are numerous and well-documented. The cure – while not easy – was simple to Mead.
The only way to save Dixon basketball was through hard work, and he had to be the model of that solution.
After that first year, Mead challenged Jarrett to develop his post game. As a freshman, Jarrett hadn't used his height in the post. Instead, he preferred chucking up 3s from the corner.
"I just wanted to shoot," Jarrett said. "I wasn't as strong as the kids in the post, and I didn't want to play down there, but he knew I had to for the team to succeed."
The only problem was that Mead didn't have a player in the system that could match Jarrett's size or give him tough competition in the post. The solution was for Mead to take up that role during pickup games.
The next problem was that Mead wasn't actually that good at basketball or that strong in the post.
As a high school player at Hoffman Estates, Mead scored seven varsity points. His brother, Brian, is the school's all-time leading scorer.
Mead hit the weight room daily to get stronger, and he started playing basketball every day.
"I wish I had put forth this sort of effort when I was in high school," Mead said. "I was on a good team, and I think I could have done more to help us get farther."
Luke Ravlin, who took over the girls program the same year as Mead came to Dixon, watched and knew the effort would lead to results – even if those results were a few years off.
"There aren't many coaches willing to physically get bigger, stronger and faster to help the team," Ravlin said. "That sort of devotion to the team is infectious, and it caught on with his players."
Mead has became a good shooter, and his defense made Jarrett become a force in the post.
"What you can't tell is that he has like a 7-foot wingspan," Jarrett said. "That makes it very hard to get around him. I was stronger than him, and now he is really strong."
There were times during that one-win first season that nearly pushed Mead out the door.
One night in LaSalle-Peru, his Dukes were battling hard, but the foul count seemed to be favoring the Cavaliers a little too much.
Frustration boiled over.
"I said and did things that night that just weren't appropriate," Mead said. "I came back that night and knew that wasn't the coach I wanted to be. My identity was so wrapped up in my job, that I was losing myself."
Another time the Dukes had three games in a week. Before the first game, one player quit. After losses to Oregon and Streator, the week ended with a 30-point walloping by United Township.
"I came home from that game and wondered why the heck had I put in all the work to scout that team when we had lost before we even got off the bus," Mead said.
It was Ravlin and Mead's father, Larry, who helped keep Mead's compass pointed north.
"When you are losing like that, you don't have many friends," Mead said. "Luke was about the one friend I had."
"All I tried to do was remind him that he was putting in the hard work and running a system that works," Ravlin said.
His father, who lives in Hoffman Estates, has been an assistant for the Dukes despite balancing a full-time job and the long drive from the suburbs.
"He would just ask me sometimes, 'why are you getting so mad?'" Mead said. "That's all it would take."
After that first season, Mead focused on identity and he has been mentored by his pastor. He says he has not doubted his role or his purpose as the Dukes coach since.
When Mead found out that he was being named coach of the year, he talked to each player individually explaining that he was getting this because of the work they did.
It doesn't take much time for Mead to get emotional about the group of kids, who as freshmen and sophomores, stuck with him through the hard times.
"I can't imagine I'll ever be more proud of a group of kids," Mead said. "I've been blessed by having this group. When you're a kid that comes into a program winning 20 games a year, there are people above you to show you how to get there.
"These kids had to learn for themselves. I've told them that as much work as it has taken us to go from one win to four wins to 23, is equal to what it'll take to take the next step. They are ready for that."
Before next season comes with much higher expectations and a target on their backs, there will be months of open gyms and weight lifting. Mead will be there for all of them.
Players for both the boys and girls teams text him to open the gym to shoot. He never says no.
Mead, who teaches math, including AP statistics, doesn't spend much time at home. Earlier this week, he was at the school until 10:30 p.m.
"He's puts the same effort in the classroom as on the sideline," Ravlin said. "If a kid needs help, he'll be there. I think there are a lot of people on our staff like that now. He's the model for that."
In a place where trust was lost and expectations were low, Mead has put the Dukes on solid ground.
The solution was simple. Getting to it required work. Jason Mead can think of no better way to have spent his time.