FAIRFIELD — Jason Chatham has seen a lot in his 11 seasons at the helm of the Rodriguez High baseball team.
The only head coach the Mustangs have known, Chatham has seen the program grow from its infancy to a major power in the area baseball scene.
After repeated trips to the playoffs and one close call in 2011, Chatham finally guided his team to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship in the spring and for that, he is the Daily Republic’s 2012 Coach of the Year.
“It has come a long way,” Chatham said. “One of the advantages of starting from scratch is that you don’t have to undo anything.”
Indeed. For the Mustangs, it’s been a constant march forward.
“It did take a long to get to where it is now, but it’s really gratifying,” Chatham said. “But we still want to take it further.”
It wasn’t easy reaching the pinnacle of prep baseball in the state of California – there is no CIF state championship in the sport – and things didn’t start out all that great for the Mustangs.
“We had some struggles around that fifth game, we were 1-4. Early on we were trying different combinations,” Chatham said. “We were so deep we had to see the way we played out in a game. We didn’t really have an identity at that point.”
The struggles continued into practices as well.
“Somewhere around the fifth or sixth game, we had a tough practice,” Chatham said. “We had a heart-to-heart talk. ‘Do we want to fold the tent and be an average program or are we going to put everything into it?’ ”
From that point on, the Mustangs embarked upon a six-game winning streak and went 22-5 the rest of the way.
“That was the turning point of our season. That was a huge moment. We weren’t OK with being average,” Chatham said. ”Right in that moment, the kids made a decision to give it everything we’ve got.”
Chatham gives much of the credit to his players.
“The coaches are the beneficiaries of seeing a highly motivated group of kids,” he said. “The kids had fun, and the success in the end really kind of validates that.”
Winning the section championship was just as huge for Chatham and his staff as it was for the players.
“It’s just a real source of pride for all of us that are a part of it,” he said. “You can’t be successful unless you have outstanding players and support. We’ve had some fantastic coaches come through here. We’re strong from JV to varsity. I’m just real fortunate to be a part of it.”
Chatham’s dedication to his players and his craft as a teacher as well as a coach is another reason he was chosen as the year’s top coach.
“We know exactly what we want from our players. . . . and we enjoy putting that jigsaw together,” Chatham said. “It’s more than just winning. It’s improving them as people too, and as students. We want our student-athletes to be excellent in the classroom. We want them to be young ambassadors of the game.”
As for what keeps Chatham going, it’s simple.
“It’s really been a labor of love,” he said. “What we do at Rodriguez been a huge part of my identity. I love doing it and the baseball field is really an extension of the classroom. It allows you to reach kids in a new way. I can’t tell how gratifying it is.”
Talking about the theory that all coaches have a shelf-life, Chatham said he doesn’t see that as an issue.
“I’m 37, I’m still young. I don’t see a point where this is going to become boring or monotonous,” he said. “As coaches, we’re constantly in contact. The program is in great shape for years to come.”
And the Mustangs are hardly going to rest on their laurels with one blue section title banner.
“We have high goals for ourselves. We want to be one of the top programs in he area,” Chatham said.
That goal faces a stiff challenge this spring as Rodriguez moves into the Monticello Empire League and likely up to Division I in the postseason.
“In Division I, we’ll be tested day in day out,” Chatham said. “The league will be difficult and well-coached. And then what we have to do in playoffs effectively doubles.”
Given as long as he’s been around, Chatham said he’s still figuring things out.
“In Year 12, there’s still a lot I need to learn to get better,” he said.
Reach Mike Corpos at 427-6979, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mcorposdr.