It's been a long, often bumpy ride for Tim Pirowski.
In nine years as Portage baseball coach, he's made the sport important again, eradicating the apathy that pervaded the program, getting kids to believe they could win and to make the personal investment necessary to do so.
"I remember starting out; I had kids to sign a contract that they would come to off-season conditioning," Pirowski said. "(Baseball) didn't matter at all to a lot of kids. It was no big deal to lose. It was just something to do to pass the time until football. That was a big eye-opener. The hardest thing the first couple years was changing that mentality, getting them to buy in."
Like anything, it was a process, a painstaking one.
Another big step was starting to catch up with the top schools in the area whose players were involved in travel baseball. Town leagues have a key role, but high school sports have changed to the point where it's not enough.
"We have some kids who just played Little League and they do just fine, but to get to the next level, to have the success of the Crown Points and Lake Centrals, we need more kids playing competitive baseball," Pirowski said. "We had a couple here and there, but still right now, 70, 80 percent are Little League."
Three years ago, Pirowski met with a few travel groups that had begun and brokered a merger. The Portage Tribe was formed. As with Little League, coaches were briefed on what Pirowski wanted done. While travel ball expenses typically exceed $1,000, the not-for-profit Tribe is able to do it for about $500, a cost that can also be absorbed through fund raising.
"We had to make it more affordable," Pirowski said. "What it's done is really create a culture of pride. Kids, coaches, adults are wearing hats, t-shirts. You see them at games. The freshmen now are the first group we started with. It's going to have a positive effect the next few years."
You can say the same about Wednesday's Class 4A LaPorte Sectional championship. Portage had turned the corner in recent years, becoming a consistent winner, but had yet to break a postseason drought that dated back to 1995. At 19-13 and just 4-10 in the Duneland, the current squad isn't Pirowski's most talented but as it so often happens in baseball, the stars were aligned.
"Baseball's a funny game, Pirowski said. "I told the players I didn't pray that we'd win, I prayed that I'd have the strength to handle it if we lost. Last year ate me alive. I was still thinking about it in the summer and fall. We'd been there. We won 25 games the last two years, but didn't win the sectional. We needed to win. It's huge."
Now that the ice is broken, Pirowski hopes the program can continue its ascent. His next endeavor is to have more baseball players involved in other sports, a 180 turn from what he once wanted.
"I'm seeing the benefits," he said. "You lose that edge, without doing other sports. It helps with competitiveness. You can practice year-round, but you can't assimilate that."
Nearly a decade after he took over at his alma mater, Pirowski is one of its longest-tenured coaches and boasts one of its most successful teams. The difficult journey only makes the success that much sweeter.