There have been seasons, Dave Pishkur admits, when his biggest tasks as Andrean coach were making sure he delivered the lineup card to home plate and had his right arm loose to wave home all the runners coming around third base.
This wasn't one of them.
"We had no pitchers returning and only really three everyday position players," Pishkur said. "On paper, we didn't think it would be a team that would do a lot of damage. Halfway through the season, I didn't think we were very good. Three-quarters of the way, we were getting better, but I was like, nah, there's no way we can make a run at this, we're going to exit (the tournament) quick and still be in 3A."
In 36 years coaching his alma mater, Pishkur has never been happier to be wrong. The 59ers defeated Jasper in the Class 3A state championship last Friday, Andrean's fifth title in the sport.
"It's by far the most surprising of the five," Pishkur said. "It wasn't a team where we could say we hung our hat on one hitter or one pitcher. I try to figure out why it happened and I can't pinpoint it. More than anything, it was the job Joe (Plesac) did with the pitching staff, making them better. Some teams just know how to win."
As do some coaches. Pishkur's 895th victory also secured him his seventh Times Coach of the Year honor.
"The big difference this year is we didn't start off, for Andrean standards, as good as we should have been," shortstop Nick Podkul said. "We weren't going to go out and hit 10 home runs or steal 20 bases. We had to do the little things right. Coach Pishkur had a huge role in our success. He and the staff put in so much time and effort. He surrounds us with all the tools to be successful. He's definitely one of the best I've ever had and probably in the whole region."
Podkul knows a little something about coaching. His late father Frank was a three-time Times Coach of the Year in softball, known as much for his personal touch as well as his game management. His son sees some of the same qualities in Pishkur.
"He knows what to find in his team, what to bring out to make them be the most successful they can be," Podkul said. "That's what he did with us. He gets to know his team really well, each person, on an individual basis. He knows exactly what to say or not say. He definitely isn't afraid to speak his mind, but if you need someone to be there for you, whatever it's for, he's always there for you, to help you through whatever."
When Andrean reached the post-season, Pishkur didn't place a burden of winning on his team. Podkul said he simply urged them to give him another week to practice with them. In the end, it was practicing as long as anybody once again, getting assists from Purdue Calumet and Lake Central last week when Andrean's field couldn't be used due to rain.
"It was fun trying to build a team, to mix and match, to try to be playing our best at the end of the year," Pishkur said. "What it came down to was we had three catchers and they all needed to be in the lineup. It started turning into our best defensive lineup and possibly our best offensive lineup. Then our pitching staff was all about competition. Either you shy away from it or you thrive and get better. They didn't run away from it."
At 62, Pishkur hasn't lost any of that spirit to sustain excellence. He stands 115 wins behind LaPorte's Ken Schreiber, whose 1,010 victories rank first among Indiana coaches. Pishkur isn't in it to chase history, but will likely wind up making more anyway.
"It's cool being with the young guys because they keep your thoughts young," he said. "With the exception of some forgotten names on a regular basis, my brain's still somewhat functional. I'm not looking at the end of the tunnel, how many more years. I'm more like, let's do one year at a time. Why leave? (Chesterton coach) Jack Campbell's what? 71?"
Over the course of a 30-6 season, Andrean defeated three teams -- 4A state champ Penn, Heritage and Jasper -- with pitchers committed to IU. Its final reward? A move up to 4A.
"As we started making our run, it was, let's go, let's win this, let's go to 4A and see how we can compete, knowing what's coming back," Pishkur said. "We're a program that likes challenges. Our kids like challenges. And there aren't any bigger than that. Carmel will only have, what, 4,400 more (students) than us? It's not to say we'll do a darn thing in 4A, but it'll be fun."
Success in the biggest class would provide the ultimate validation of Pishkur's success. Not that he or Andrean need it.
"It would be icing on the cake," he said. "We've got our doubters out there. Oh, it's 3A. We beat Brownsburg in '05. In '09, on paper, we were the best team. In '10, anybody would've had a hard time beating that pitching staff. Last year, we were the best in the state. This year, were we the best? Jasper was No. 1 and had the highest national ranking in the state. We validated it by beating a lot of good teams."