BUTLER — You don’t win over 650 games without doing something right or paying attention to details.
Regardless of the sport, Eastside’s Aaron Willard has a formula for success.
In his first year as boys basketball coach, he guided the Blazers to a sectional title, ending a 27-year drought.
As softball coach, he won more than 500 games, a state championship in 1998, 13 sectionals and six regionals.
In baseball, he’s adding to that legacy. On the tournament trail, Willard captured his 100th coaching victory, his third sectional title and the school’s first regional and semi-state championships.
Willard has been the head coach of seven of Eastside’s nine IHSAA regional championship teams.
A win Monday would make him the first coach to win state titles in both baseball and softball.
Each year begins by meeting with the seniors to outline team goals and choose a theme.
This year’s Blazers have centered on “It’s Time.” Past slogans include “Live the Dream,” “En Fuego” and “Our Time.”
“Lots of times, it’s to refocus a team or have life lessons associated with it,” Willard explained. “How do we get to our end goal or how do we get to what we want? That slogan throughout the season can only help a team.”
Live the Dream, the 1998 team slogan, came to Willard one night while watching Johnny Carson and longtime Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Willard remembers Lasorda talking about winning a gold medal in a tournament and how he had lived the dream.
“I thought, ‘Damn, that’s a great slogan,’” Willard said.
His players have taken those sayings to heart, and even an arm.
One former player met legendary college basketball coach John Wooden, had him autograph one of his pyramid of success posters and gave it to Willard. Another time, one player tattooed that particular year’s slogan on her arm.
“It resonated with them,” Willard said. “Whatever we go do (Monday), that’s fine in the whole scheme of things.
“Understand the process of how we got to the state tournament and take those lessons and build off it. That’s what you always want as a coach,” he said. “You want them to understand how unified we are, how every practice is planned out, how we can have fun and still get things done.”
They’re all lessons he hopes his players take and use in life.
Three members of Eastside’s 1998 state championship softball team can attest.
“One of his quotes he instilled in us — that I still use even today — is ‘Pay attention to the details,’” Trisha (Shilling) Lovett said. “He usually followed that up with ‘Those are what win ballgames.’ It was always about the details and seeing them through every play, hit, run, tag, you name it.
“Coach Willard was always one of those coaches that could give you goosebumps to get you fired up to go out there and get the job done.
“He wasn’t always business,” Lovett added, recalling random ice cream stops after a big win or some fun things in practice.
“He would throw a little bit of fun here and there,” she said. “I remember him challenging me to a race to first base. Disclaimer, I always had a pinch-runner (in games), and I’m pretty sure coach beat me.”
Lindsay (Mitchener) Schott said, “Coach Willard is such a great leader. When I went to play in college, I quickly realized that he was unique.
“He was so organized at building up to a result and made sure we had the mechanics to be successful,” she said. “I begged him to come coach me again. He is the best coach I have ever been around, and I’ve been in travel/college ball for over 15 years.
“He’s direct but knows that you don’t play well unless you believe in yourself,” Schott added. “His lessons are not just for sports, but how to work together, to have a united goal, to lead when needed or follow when the time comes.
“Having him be a part of your life is a blessing, and I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity.”
Karla (Ridge) Kreischer said, “A great coach can take average players and make them great. He knows who will benefit the team best in each capacity and situation, utilizing them to their fullest potential. He believes in his players and they know it.
“Even when he corrected — sometimes with a harsh tone — I knew he cared for and believed in me and our team. It was a true honor to play for a man I consider to be the best in our area, hands down.”
Regardless of the outcome Monday, the Blazers will come home with a trophy and medallions. Still, winning the big trophy and the blue ones would be best.
How special would a second state championship be?
“That’s the goal and the focus,” Willard said. “I’ve never went into any game in my whole career (playing or coaching) wanting to lose. Nobody has. The reason I’ve stuck around and done it for a long time is because I love the competition.
“To win that would be special. It would be special for this group of kids.
“We’ve already won in a lot of regards,” he added. “Now, we just have to go win a baseball game.”