Sometimes, a decade can just fly by. Other times, it feels like a lifetime ago. For Ben Sondgeroth, it's a little of both.
Ten years after being named the Sauk Valley Media baseball player of the year, the former Rock Falls Rocket standout returned to the same dugout, at the same diamond, to accept his 2014 SVM coach of the year award for his work this season with the Morrison Mustangs.
"It seems like awhile ago, quite a long time now, but it really hasn't been all that long when you sit down and think about it," Sondgeroth said, gazing out over the diamond where he once crunched home runs for the Rockets. "Just even seeing the green and black now … the brain's kind of conditioned to red and white now. It's pretty cool though, a great honor, and a neat experience."
It's an exclusive club Sondgeroth joins, one that didn't exist until now. Since 2000, he is the first former player of the year to also capture coach of the year honors as well.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said Rock Falls coach Donnie Chappell, who coached Sondgeroth on the varsity team for three seasons. "He was the catcher, always in charge of everything, and he always understood the game. He's the type of person who will succeed at everything he does, do his absolute best at all times. Nothing he does or achieves surprises me."
While his former coach never had any doubts that the one-time star catcher would get there someday, Sondgeroth himself admitted it was something he rarely thought about, other than in an abstract way.
"I don't think you ever really expect it to happen, and especially not this early," Sondgeroth said. "As an athlete and a competitor, you always hope that you can get it if you try your hardest and do your best. It's a little bit of a surprise, but to sit here 10 years later is pretty cool. It's a neat honor.
"But you rely on your kids to do it for you, to get you to the spot where you are successful as a coach, and it's because of them that I'm here."
As his coaches did when he was tearing it up at Rock Falls, Sauk Valley Community College, or the University of Indianapolis, Sondgeroth is quick to deflect credit to his Mustangs.
And as his squad reeled off a 12-game win streak to end the regular season en route to a 16-6 season and a seventh consecutive conference crown, the past crept up and caught Sondgeroth with a small sense of deja vu.
"I saw a lot of our old Rock Falls team in this year's Mustangs," Sondgeroth said. "Aside from the experience part – we always had experienced teams at Rock Falls, and we were really young this year – we had things that were very much a part of what it was like when I was playing. We had good arms at the top [of the rotation], and some guys in the middle of the lineup that could swing it a little bit and drive the ball into the gap."
It's a formula for success, and has been for quite some time for the Rockets. But with Sondgeroth and his predecessor both being from that same mold, it's not too surprising.
After Gus Linke reinstated the Morrison baseball program in 1986 – the first team the school had since 1933 – it was another Rock Falls grad who kept building on Linke's strong foundation of 320 wins in 17 seasons. Scott Vance took the Mustangs to a third-place state finish in 2009, and led the program to 144 wins in 8 years before stepping aside to become MHS principal after the 2010 season.
Linke and Vance had big roles in bringing in Sondgeroth, and he has not disappointed.
"Ben was my first choice, because I knew he was the type of guy that could keep up this program going strong," said Vance, who coached Sondgeroth as a freshman basketball player at Rock Falls. "The thing about Ben is his enthusiasm, in everything he does, and he's still got that competitiveness as a former standout athlete that he's able to drill into the kids.
"I always knew the awards and accolades would come his way; it was only a matter of time. Not surprisingly, it didn't take him much time at all."
In four seasons at the Mustangs' helm, Sondgeroth has compiled an 81-23 record. Morrison has never not won a Three Rivers title under his watch, and they nabbed a 2A regional crown in 2012.
"It's grown into a tradition at Morrison to have good baseball teams, and when you step into a spot like that and follow guys like Scott and Gus, there's pressure to keep it going," Sondgeroth said. "It's a challenge to maintain the status quo and get better. But I can't do anything without good baseball players, and I've been blessed with that so far.
"It's nice as a coach to look down on the farm, just sit back and say, 'All right, who've we got coming up next year that we can work with and craft into a great ballplayer?' It's definitely a luxury, and it's one I've been fortunate enough to have."
And don't think for a second he doesn't appreciate it. With friends and former teammates taking over programs who are in full rebuilding mode, Sondgeroth is stoked to have the talent to keep up his winning ways.
He won as a player at Rock Falls, Sauk Valley, and Indianapolis – "I don't handle defeat very well, because I've never really had to deal with it, and I don't know how I would react in a situation like that," he said – and credits a lot of that to close-knit squads and team chemistry.
This spring was more of the same with the Mustangs, and that was his favorite part of the 2014 season.
"It's fun to watch a team come together, and this team had that good chemistry," Sondgeroth said. "It was fun to be around, energetic to be the coach of a team with all the guys getting along and having fun. I could goof around with them, then right at the next turn, snap on them to get them back on track, and they would do what we wanted them to do."
It's one of the many reasons why the former Rock Falls Rocket player of the year now considers himself a Morrison Mustang through and through, even when he's once again looking out over the Rock Falls diamond where he made so many memories a decade ago.
"I don't see where there would be a better fit for me to be a coach right now," Sondgeroth said. "It's a real close-knit community that welcomed me in, and I'm happy to be part of it. Unless something drastic happens, I don't see my career going anywhere else right now. I love it there."
Hometown: Rock Falls
High school: Rock Falls, class of 2004
College: Sauk Valley, class of 2006; University of Indianapolis, class of 2009; master's degree at University of Illinois, 2012
Occupation: Director of technology for the Morrison school district
Coaching: 4 years varsity baseball, 2 years varsity golf
FYI: Was SVM player of the year in 2004. … Still holds Indianapolis records for RBIs in a single season (77) & career (134). … Has compiled 81-23 record & 4 Three Rivers titles in 4 seasons at Morrison.