Becker’s Jason Baune reached an impressive milestone Tuesday when his Bulldogs shutout the Willmar Cardinals in the opening round of the MSHSL softball playoffs, as the win was his 300th as head coach of the program.
In his 19 years as head coach (18 competition seasons when last year’s COVID-19 cancellation is figured in), Baune has amassed an overall record of 300-132, which translates to nearly 17 wins per season compared to just seven losses.
So, coach, how does it feel to reach the milestone?
“More than anything, I feel a sense of pride for our entire softball program because we have had so many talented, hard working players and so many families willing to sacrifice their time and energy for our program,” says Baune, who has led the Bulldogs to six state tournament appearances during his tenure.
“Even more important than the 300 wins are the hundreds of girls that have hopefully learned life skills that have made them successful after their softball and school career ends. It brings me a lot of joy to see these young women become successful adults.”
Baune is quick to point out that it’s taken an entire coaching staff to bring so much success and the program in general has experienced a tremendous amount of stability in this area. In today’s world of high school sports, having the same head coach for nearly 20 years in a sport is uncommon. Having the same core coaching staff together for that long is certainly a rarity.
Assistant Coaches Matt and Jesse O’Neill have been with Baune since the beginning, and they credit Baune’s dedication as being a difference maker.
“We struggled our first three or four seasons, just learning how to teach the game,” says Matt. “I think Baune has been successful because of the time and effort he puts into the program, as he coaches just about every summer and is involved in the youth program.”
Jesse O’Neill has been part of Baune’s program for 18 years and she sees many of the same traits as keys to the program’s success.
“He really cares about the whole student athlete, and he does the things in practices and in games that help our athletes become better softball players, but it is the things off the field that really make the difference,” says Jesse. “He not only wants them to be the best players they can be, but he wants them to be the best people they can be and our players know that.”
The connection outside of the school season is something that Activities Director Dave Niemi also sees as an important factor in the softball program.
“I think one significant thing that Jason has to get credit for since he has been the head coach is his total involvement in developing the softball program in Becker from the ground up,” says Niemi. “He spends time working with the youth coaches and players, and not just in passing on his philosophies and ideas to the coaches but in actually getting out to the practices and coaching the younger players and teams. Jason has developed relationships with those players long before they reach the high school team level, and that is a difference maker.”
One of those players who spent time in the program is 2009 Becker graduate Rachel Bekius (nee Gilbert), who played four years on the varsity team and also spent summers during her college years coaching with Baune. She remembers the balance that allowed the team to be competitive, but still focus on the fun aspects of the game.
“When I think back now, I remember a culture of working hard, paying attention to the details, and playing the game the right way,” says Bekius. “What I appreciated most about Coach Baune is that he has such a great balance of having high expectations but yet is able to have fun and keep the game in perspective.”
Baune himself gives a great deal of credit to the players and numerous coaches, both school and summer league, who have been part of the program’s success over the years.
“Matt has coached with me the last 19 years, starting as an unpaid volunteer, and he and I really form a strong team,” Baune says. “Jesse has a very important role, not only as JV coach, but also as a ‘softball mom’ for many of the girls on the team.”
He named numerous other coaches, both from Becker and across the Minnesota softball community, as being key to shaping the way he approaches running his program. He holds one former coach, however, in perhaps the highest esteem.
“I think Judee Vesledahl has played the biggest role in the success of the Becker softball program,” Baune says. “She built Becker Softball into a great program, started our youth program, and served as a great mentor to me.”
In addition to the coaching staff and players, Baune expressed gratitude towards his family for their support and patience in all the times he has spent hours at the field instead of at home.
“My wife and family have been unbelievably supportive,” Baune says, as he looks back at the past nearly two decades. “I have also been blessed to work with so many supportive families that have trusted myself and our coaching staff to do our best to help teach softball and life skills.”
While Baune has established himself as a top coach, he gets reflective when he thinks of the state of high school sports and the future of programs across the state.
“As I read more and more stories about high school coaches being fired, pressured into resigning, or leaving because of a lack of support, I hope that we can slow that trend and become more supportive of those that choose to coach,” Baune says. “While none of us is perfect, high school coaches are almost universally doing the best they can to make high school activities a fun learning experience for kids. I hope that families can learn to work with coaches to help them make a positive impact on kids, rather than being one more obstacle that makes coaching so challenging that they walk away from something that they love.”
In other words, he hopes that more programs can enjoy the stability and success that have been trademarks of the Becker Bulldog softball team over the past two decades.