NORMAL — When Normal West High School baseball coach Chris Hawkins picked up his 500th career victory last week, it made him think of all the players and assistant coaches that went into it, and one other thing.
"It just tells you how many games you've been a part of and it makes that gray in my goatee stand out even more," quipped Hawkins. "I've been telling my wife (Karrin), I'm thinking about shaving it because there are way too many grays in there."
If winning was the Fountain of Youth, Hawkins would still look like the youngster who learned the game while growing up in Lexington.
His 19 years at Normal West have produced 11 regional titles, nine Major League Baseball draftees and his enshrinement in the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
"Everything was always so organized and prepared," remembers Jordan Comadena, a 2004 West graduate now working as a bullpen catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He was always tough on me. It wasn't always easy, but it absolutely made me better and prepared me for college (at Purdue)."
Heartland College sophomore Peyton Dillingham, another former Wildcat, believes Hawkins' people skills produce victories.
"He builds good relationships with his players and I think that's one of the most important pieces he brings to the table," Dillingham said. "He's close with his team and everybody trusts everybody so everybody is going to do their part."
After promoting an aggressive/fearless style of play, Hawkins takes a 504-211 career record (a .705 winning percentage) into Thursday's 4:30 p.m. game at Peoria Richwoods where his 16-4 Wildcats will put a 13-game winning streak on the line.
West hasn't lost since facing one of the top teams in Alabama, Birmingham's Oak Mountain, on March 26. The Wildcats opened the season 1-3 after setbacks against Pekin, Oswego East and Brother Rice.
"Our motto is we win or we learn," Hawkins said. "The kids have taken that to heart by learning from our losses rather than dwelling on them."
West's 10 juniors and eight seniors are so good, they've allowed Hawkins to leave his freshmen and sophomores to develop at the lower levels.
The Wildcats' top hitter is Carl Sandburg-bound shortstop Austin Collinson (.448), a four-year starter who is 3-2 as a pitcher.
"He's having his best season," Hawkins said.
Junior Will Kafer has the Pantagraph area's top pitching record at 6-0 with two saves. He's fanned 33 in 35 innings while posting a 1.40 earned run average. A .265 hitter, he was the 2018 Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
"He's starting to get hot at the plate again," reports Hawkins.
Cody Hardt (.339), a football offensive lineman headed to North Central, has a team-high three home runs.
"He just has some raw power," Hawkins said. "He's an animal in the weight room and he's able to bring that to home plate hitting wise."
Junior middle infielder Alec McGinnis (.429) has a team-leading 20 runs batted in.
"He's been a huge surprise offensively for us," Hawkins said. "He's a defensive whiz, but the offensive side of his game has really come together this spring."
The fastest Wildcat, Connor Stephenson (six stolen bases), shares catching duties with Southern Illinois-bound Brennan Diedrich (.421) and Cole Hernandez (.339).
"(Stephenson) is definitely a Tasmanian Devil on the bases," Hawkins said.
Other top contributors are Blackhawk College-bound Brandon Roth (.351), Evan Hutson (.310) and Chicago State recruit C.J. Lewis (.261). Roth is 3-0 as a pitcher and Evan Wallgren 2-0. Their 50-year-old Hawkins hopes to coach at least another seven years before retiring.
"What keeps me going is the kids," he said. "They have great hearts. You see the joy the game brings to these kids and it's energizing."