Veteran Kansas high school baseball coach Bill McDonald came to the newly opened Blue Valley West High School in the unincorporated community of Stilwell, Kan., in 2001 after spending nearly 30 years coaching at Shawnee Mission (Kan.) South High School.
It was a somewhat radical plunge into the unknown for a middle-aged prep coach who seemed to have the bull by horns while leading Shawnee Mission South to four Kansas state baseball championships in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 2001-02 school year was to be Blue Valley West’s first in existence.
"Thirty years at one place is a long time and I loved it, and we had great deal of success (at Shawnee Mission South," McDonald told PG in a recent telephone conversation. "I guess I just wanted to see if I could do it again, so I took the chance. I felt like I was cheating on my wife; when I went in to interview for the job I looked left and right to make sure nobody was watching me."
McDonald wasn’t cheating on anyone, of course. He was simply embarking on a second journey that has firmly established the Blue Valley West program as one of the top Kansas Class 6A (big school) programs in the state. The Jaguars won the Class 6A state championship in 2007 and again last year, and has always been an annual threat to win the Eastern Kansas League (EKL) title.
The EKL is an eight-team league centered in the Overland Park, Kan., area just south of Kansas City, Kan., on the state’s eastern border. The league is dominated by schools from the Blue Valley School District – Blue Valley HS, Blue Valley Southwest HS, Blue Valley Northwest HS, Blue Valley North HS and Blue Valley West HS – along with Aquinas, Bishop Miege and Gardner-Edgerton high schools.
The Jaguars return all nine players from their everyday lineup that finished 21-4 and won the EKL title in addition to winning the state championship. They are ranked No. 43 in the Perfect Game National High School Top 50 Rankings, trailing only No. 42 Thunder Ridge HS from Highlands Ranch, Colo., among the ranked teams from PG’s high school Great Plains Region.
Blue Valley West was defeated in Kansas Class 6A state championship games in both 2011 and 2012. It was the 2012 team that McDonald thought was cut from the cloth of state championship material with a senior dominated lineup and a pitching staff that produced 14 shutouts in 25 games.
Eleven seniors graduated from that team, including pitcher Collin Wiles, a right-hander who was a first round compensation pick of the Texas Rangers in the 2012 MLB amateur draft. Last year's championship team had only four seniors on the roster, including left-hander Derek Hurt, a second-team Class 6A all-state performer in 2013.
"Derek Hurt came along last year, and if you would have walked in you probably would have said, ‘You know, I could hit this kid,’" McDonald said. "But you can't hit him – he's going to put it up and in on you, he's going to throw it away and he's a low-ball strike thrower and we have a tremendous defense."
The championship run was keyed by Hurt and a talented group of juniors and sophomores that proved to have more than the right stuff, and none were more impressive than four NCAA Division I recruits that McDonald can put behind the plate, on the mound and at shortstop. It took that kind of talent to step in for all what was lost from the 2012 team.
"To replace those kids we had quality people come in who had a lot of humility," McDonald said. "I don't want to be a 69-year-old man preaching to anybody, but in my 47 total years of coaching – 41 as a head baseball coach – I've never had kids that had that much skill and that kind of humility. They liked each other, they liked baseball, and as I start reaching the end of my baseball life it’s been really fun to see that – and we have every one of them back.”
It starts with a pair of senior right-handers from Overland Park in Zack Engelken and Ryan Ralston. Engelken is a 6-foot-4, 200-pound Nebraska signee ranked the No. 5 overall prospect in the state of Kansas’ 2014 class; he was named the Kansas Class 6A Pitcher of the Year in 2013 as a junior and was an all-tournament selection at last year’s PG WWBA 18u National Championship.
“Zack brings to Lincoln a solid three-pitch mix with a very good breaking ball,” Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad said in a news release after Engelken had signed his name to his letter-of-intent. “There is definitely more in the tank and we look forward to seeing him develop and compete during his career at Nebraska.”
Ralston is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound Kansas signee ranked the No. 3 prospect in Kansas, and was a Class 6A first team all-state selection as a third baseman. He played in last October’s PG WWBA World Championship with the St. Louis Pirates and was an all-tournament selection at the 2012 PG WWBA 17u National Championship.
Senior catcher Tanner Gragg is a 6-foot-1, 220-pound Kansas recruit who, like Engelken, was at the 2013 Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis and is also a PG Second Team Preseason All-American. He played in the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Giants Scout Team and was named to the all-tournament team at the 2013 PG WWBA World while playing with the Mid-Atlantic PG Orange.
Gragg was also named to the Top Prospect List at the 2013 Perfect Game Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase, and after the event PG vice president of player personnel and scouting David Rawnsley noted that Gragg’s “arm strength from the behind the plate was one of the clear standout tools of the event” and that he’s a “high upside defensive talent with good athleticism and agility behind the dish.”
Other top senior returnees for the Jaguars include outfielder Evan Bourn, a Neosho County Community College signee, left-hander/first baseman Dan Reilly and second baseman Garrett Smith.
Shortstop Connor Kaiser is the top guy in the 2015 class but he broke an ankle playing basketball about three weeks ago and is our for the early part of the season. He is a 6-foot-3, 180-pound Vanderbilt commit who earned a spot on the 2013 Rawlings High School Gold Glove Team after not committing an error in 93 total chances last season. He can also pitch, and was 4-0 with two saves and a 0.00 ERA in 21 innings last year.
Junior outfielders Sam Daily and Sam Davis also return. All of the players just mentioned earned either first or second team All-Eastern Kansas League recognition in 2013.
“The chemistry will change a little bit because they're a year older now; things change, pressures change, expectations change,” McDonald said. “But I think kids as level-headed as they are and I think we work pretty hard.
"I grew up in a small town in Kansas; Dad worked on the railroad, Mom was a school teacher,” he continued. “We ate chipped beef on toast, pancakes and hamburgers and as a kid all I knew was how to work hard and be a team player. That's kind of what I tried to bring to Shawnee Mission South and now to Blue Valley West."
McDonald spent his first year of college at the University of Kansas where he played on the freshmen baseball team in 1962-63, like every other freshmen in the Jayhawks' program. A pitcher, he suffered a shoulder injury playing ball in the summer of 1963 and never pitched again.
He firmly believes in fundamentals and character development, first and foremost, and he studies the game on a regular basis. He reads everything he can get his hands on while also watching a ton of video.
"Sometimes I do worry about overkill; sometimes I worry about giving them too much to think about," McDonald said of his coaching style. "There are a lot better baseball people in the world (than me) but I humbly can say that I can put a team together – that's one thing I can do. I can put a team together and make them work together as a unit, and I think that's a strength."
McDonald is uncomfortable having his program at Blue Valley West referred to as a “national power” even if several sets of national rankings identify it as just that. He does appreciate, however, his players being recognized for their hard work.
"When I was at Shawnee South we won four state championships and were runner-up five times and we had several kids that had been drafted,” McDonald said. “I believe in not letting a stone be unturned and I'm kind of a relentless worker, and I want my teams to reflect that.
"... Baseball is a great example of adversity in life and there can be lots of failure," he continued. "I think I'm able to overcome that adversity and I try to reflect that back on the kids; the first thing we work on is character development."
McDonald will begin his 13th season at Blue Valley West when the Jaguars travel to Blue Valley Southwest in Overland Park for their opener on April 1. He’s a 69-year-old who has proven it’s never too late to build something from the ground up, like he has with the BVW baseball program.
He has more than 600 wins in his career, and while records are sketchy it is widely believed he is the only Kansas high school baseball coach to eclipse the 600-win mark. The wins take care of themselves, of course. What matters most to McDonald is that he and his players are still having a lot of fun playing baseball.
"That's one thing that I really want to be in tune with," McDonald said. "My dad told me a long time ago, Bill, when you don't like going to practice, that's a message that you need to get out as a coach. I told my wife here a month ago as I was kind of working on stuff, 'You know it scares me that I'm enjoying this as much today working on baseball as much as I did 40 years ago.’
"I try to be in tune with how I' m relating to the kids," he concluded. "I have had people that have been critical to me ... and I've had people come in and say, 'McDonald is old-school.' ... I believe in respect and humility ... and I think everybody knows where they stand with me and I can still make the kids laugh. Sometimes things happen and I think by letting the kids know that you care about them other than baseball, I think they understand that I care a great deal for them."