RANTOUL — When the Rantoul and Hoopeston Area baseball teams meet next year on March 21, there will be a little extra juice in the matchup.
Rich Harbicek, who spent three seasons as an assistant coach in the Rantoul program, last week officially accepted the job to become the Cornjerkers’ head baseball coach.
Harbicek coached junior high baseball in Rantoul for three years and spent the last four years as the Rantoul Eater eighth-grade boys basketball coach in addition to his services helping head coach Jon Donovan with the Eagles’ varsity program — including his first two years as the junior varsity head coach and last season an assistant on the varsity staff.
"I’m very excited," Harbicek said. "It’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole teaching career is be a head man and run a varsity program in either baseball or basketball. But because of family commitments and wanting my daughter to get her scholarship and play at the level she wanted to, I wanted to put my family and their needs first.
"My main factor was wanting to be the head man. I was at a point in my career where I’m ready to lead a program and take that program to the next level to have success at the regional and sectional level and get a team to state."
Now that his daughter, who played softball at Northern Kentucky University, has finished her playing career, Harbicek said it’s time to focus more on his coaching career.
Harbicek saw the opening online for a teaching/coaching/administrator position in Hoopeston and after applying for the post, it took just five minutes to receive a call in which he was offered an interview.
"It seemed like a real good fit on both ends," Harbicek said. "The athletic director very much wanted to be able to continue the success Hoopeston baseball has had. We’re on the same page going forward to help take the program to the next level."
In addition to his services as the head varsity man, he will also coach junior high baseball and sixth-grade boys basketball and will be a sixth-grade classroom teacher, teaching all subjects. It seems like a lot will be on his plate, but the workload is something Harbicek is used to.
And one thing that is clear is there will be no animosity between the two clubs when the Eagles and Cornjerkers meet. There is a lot of mutual respect between Donovan and Harbicek.
"I’ve picked his brain about many things," Harbicek said of Donovan. "First off, I thanked him for giving me the opportunity to coach with him the last three years. Coach Donovan is a brilliant baseball mind. We worked really well together. His strengths were my weaknesses, and my strengths were his weaknesses, so we worked really well. We had a great deal of respect for each other, and we’ve become very good friends. And that’ll continue. I’ll ask him for advice on plenty of scenarios that might occur.
"Jon’s a wonderful man to work for, and I wish him nothing but success for his program moving forward. I want them to be extremely successful because the guys I’ve had the opportunity to coach there are great kids and hard workers. There are only more positive situations to arise for that team going forward next year. The guys are going into their senior year with something to prove with the success they had last year, and they want to build on that success next season. Jon was a great guy to coach for, and he was instrumental in helping me decide to take this road in baseball. … He’s a wonderful guy to work under. He allows you a lot of freedom as a coach and lets you develop as a coach. When I ran the JV team, it was my team. There was no micro-management. He was a great coach to work for."
Harbicek, who said the organizational aspect and running the nuts and bolts of a program is one of his strengths while Donovan was great at the technical aspects and strategies on the field, said he will miss coaching the Eagles next year in a season he believes the program will shine.
"My players and working with Coach Donovan and not to be there for the success I predict they’ll have this upcoming season (is what I’ll miss most)," Harbicek said. "It’s a team that can win 20 games and win a conference championship and compete at the state level — to win a regional and get to the sectional level and see what happens there. I’ll miss that opportunity and the relationships I developed with Coach Donovan. And I’ll miss that senior class, Hayden Cargo, Adam Crites, Chad Vermillion, Hunter Hoffman."
"We complimented each other extremely well," Donovan said of Harbicek, who is his first assistant coach to move onto a head coaching position. "One of my weaknesses and areas I need to improve on is organizational skills, and he was tremendous at this. He also was willing to learn and take constructive criticisms, and that is unique when working with someone who is older than myself.
"I enjoyed my time with him because he was extremely loyal and unbiased in his approach to coaching. I am happy to see him in a new role with greater responsibility and going to a program at Hoopeston that has past success and blue-collar young men willing to work."
Prior to officially being named the Hoopeston baseball head coach at last Thursday’s board meeting, Harbicek let his former Rantoul players know ahead of time his intentions of taking the job.
"I feel as a coach, you’ve got to show your players respect," Harbicek said. "It’s a two-way street when it comes to respect. I built my career on respecting my players and having a rapport with them. I wanted them to have first-hand knowledge so I could tell them in person. They’re all very happy to see the opportunity I’m getting. It’s something I’ve wanted my whole teaching career, to be the head man of a varsity program, and now it’s time for me to take that next step to lead a program."
The Cornjerkers return several key players from a 17-7 season in which they lost in a regional championship game. And joining Harbicek on his staff will be assistant coach Bobby Gassett and volunteer assistant Bryce Leigh.
"They had a very solid year and have several players coming back. Now it’s all about taking that next step as a program to have success at the state level," Harbicek said. "I’m going to build upon what’s there. It’s not a program that needs to be rebuilt. It’s had success. It just needs get polished to take the next step and create that environment that can compete with the upper-echelon teams in the area and go in and beat those teams."
Contact Zack Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.