Second Winningest HS Coach In History Retires 0

By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball

DECORAH, Iowa — One of the greatest high school baseball coaches in history recently retired in Dennis Olejniczak.

The head coach of Decorah High School (Decorah, Iowa) posted the second highest win total in United States history for a high school baseball coach with 1,417 victories.

He was the head coach at Decorah High School for 55 years and led teams to three state titles, nine title games, 11 state tournament appearances and 21 Northeast Iowa Conference championships. He also coached for one year at Janesville H.S. (Lansing, Iowa).

Olejniczak is only behind Gene Schultz of Kee H.S. (Lansing, Iowa) for the most wins in high school baseball history at 1,578.

Collegiate Baseball caught up with this giant in the coaching ranks and asked him to explain his fabulous system.

One of the keys to his success was working with Little League players in his town so they were well versed on great baseball fundamentals prior to coming to Decorah H.S.

“In the summer of 1964, I took on the job of being director of Decorah’s Little League program,” said the 78-year-old Olejniczak.

“I decided that we would treat anybody who ever showed up as fairly as we could. It didn’t matter to us if they didn’t have a mom, dad or brothers and sisters who could play some ball with them. Everyone was given an opportunity to learn and improve in the great game of baseball.

“Everyone was taught the same way as we had an 8-9-10 year age group and 11-12-13 division. We always had a draft of only Decorah, Iowa kids, and we tried to make sure every team had the same amount of talent. None of the teams actually had coaches like you typically see on Little League teams.

“We had three coaches during each game which covered both teams involved. And every coach had to be approved by me and was usually someone who was involved with the Decorah H.S. baseball team. That way, all the coaches were all on the same page.

“We would stop each game multiple times when teaching points were needed. It might be a great play or one where some problem took place. We weren’t caught up on wins and losses. We focused on the development of these kids.

“Eight year old kids were taught that pitches over the plate from the knees to the arm pits were strikes they would swing at. If a pitch was not in that area, they wouldn’t swing at it. This taught the kids immediately what a strike zone was. We emphasized that in the game of baseball, you get three strikes. So if a pitch was in the strike zone, we wanted them attacking pitches with their swing and being very aggressive.

“Yet, we wanted them to be disciplined and not swing at pitches outside the strike zone. The word discipline was learned by these young players at eight years old. In order to have some predictability, you have to learn discipline in hitting.

“Sometimes 8-year-olds were totally overmatched in games by 10-year-old pitchers. There were times when the 8-year-old didn’t even foul off a ball for the first three weeks during the season. But when that person did foul off a ball, we stopped the game to praise him for a job well done. Then he might hit a ball fair a few at-bats later, and we would make a point of this as well.”

Incredible Teaching
Olejniczak said there were not a lot of practices because the lion’s share of instruction was done during games.

“Here is an example. Typically the best players on a team were the pitchers. He might go back on a popup and catch a ball that is near the second baseman. It was really the second baseman’s ball. So we would stop the game and point this out. We would explain that baseball is a team game. You must trust the second baseman to handle his part of the defenders on the field.

“When teaching moments took place, both teams came over to listen and learn. Sometimes we wouldn’t only verbally correct a situation but walk through the situation properly. The kids were very tolerant because games were stopped quite often. They knew it would be that way and listened well. If that situation came up down the road, the kids on this team typically performed better. We also reminded kids that there were different ways to teach different fundamentals. What we were teaching was one of the percentage ways of having success on a situation.”

Olejniczak said that in the youngest group, none of the players were allowed to be catchers.

“One of our helpers was the catcher for both teams. That person had gone through our high school program and knew the fundamentals well. In typical Little League games of this age, every other ball gets past the catcher as runners move up another base. And it doesn’t serve any function. The extra man was now a fourth outfielder on these young teams which allowed games to move on.

“Having a catcher who was a little bit more skilled like this allowed runners to be thrown out which is more realistic in games.”

Olejniczak said that 11 players were on each team, and many times they batted 1-11 so everyone got got an opportunity to bat.

“You will always have more advanced players. But those players who were less skilled weren’t automatically the 10th and 11th batters. If kids came to two consecutive games, they would be assured of starting the next game. We wanted every kid to feel like a starter which also helped their development. They felt like they were an important part of the team. Kids don’t have to be there when it is 90 degrees outside with high humidity. They can be at the swimming pool.

“If kids are out there supporting their team, we rewarded them. This set the tone with all the kids that they will only be successful if they are truly a team player.”

Olejniczak said the community backed the Little League program with great attendance day after day.

“Nobody was caught up in wins and losses. We didn’t publish the league standings. We didn’t have uniforms. We did have identity caps and T-shirts that local businesses paid for so each team had a similar look. We also encouraged kids not to wear shorts because sliding would cause injury problems.”

Olejniczak said that when he was involved in Little League, the kids really got to know him which helped as they developed and ultimately came to Decorah High School.

“When I retired from public education in 1999, I also stopped working with Little League kids. And I didn’t know the kids as well who were coming into our high school program as I did in the past. I found those kids who went through our Little League program learned a lot about baseball and were well schooled in fundamentals when they started school ball in the eighth grade. And that was a big asset.”

To read more of this article, purchase the Oct. 5, 2018 edition of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe by CLICKING HERE.

The rest of the story delves into Coach Olejniczak’s unique pitching, hitting and defensive systems at Decorah High School and why hustle was mandatory with his teams. He also explains one of the greatest qualities his teams had as they never gave up in games despite the score. The mindset they had was to find a way to win.