END OF AN ERA
HARLAN -- Following 27 outstanding seasons, Steve Daeges has announced his retirement as the Harlan Community High School head baseball coach.
Daeges, who guided the Cyclones to three state titles and five runner-up finishes during a hall of fame career, notified his players, assistant coaches and HCSD Activities Director Davis Pattee of his decision on Tuesday, March 23.
A 1972 graduate of Harlan Community, Daeges returned to his alma mater as head baseball coach in 1994 and quickly turned the Cyclones into a Class 3A power.
Over the next 27 years, HCHS qualified for the state tournament 16 times, winning 3A championships in 1996, 2003 and 2016 and placing second in 2008, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2018.
The Cyclones finished an incredible eight consecutive seasons at the state tourney from 2011-2018, the second-longest streak in state history behind Newman Catholic’s current run of 13.
Daeges, who was inducted into the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2016, finishes his coaching career with a sparkling record of 718-225 (.761).
“At some point you have to give it up,” he said. “They always say that when you get to the point where you’re going to quit, you know it’s time, so I just felt like I knew it was time. My heart was telling me to keep doing it but my head was saying that it’s the right time to quit.”
Daeges added: “There’s been a lot of really good memories in those 27 years. You cherish those moments.”
Daeges, 66, had continued to coach HCHS on a year-by-year basis since retiring as a history and social studies teacher from the school in 2016. The Cyclones went 139-24 (.853) since that time and capped a string of four straight title game appearances in 2018.
Steve and his wife, Sue, moved from Harlan to Council Bluffs last November in order to live closer to their oldest son Matt, wife Katy and their three children - ages 9, 7 and 5 - who reside in Omaha. Steve and Sue’s youngest son, Zach, lives in the Minneapolis area with his wife, Marina, and their 1-year-old son.
Steve Daeges said that spending more time with the grandkids and watching them play sports was a big factor in his decision to retire, along with being able to travel more with Sue during the summer months and not leave her home alone on many nights during the busy baseball schedule.
Daeges called it a very tough decision, and even though there is never a perfect time to step away he feels like he is leaving the program in good standing.
“You can’t predict what the next ball team is going to be like. It takes a lot of things to fall into place to do well, but I think our program is in great shape,” he said.
“Last year we had a young team. We did a little better than I thought we would. I think the program is in a good place and I think it’s a good time to turn it over to someone else who can basically carry on the tradition that we’ve established.”
That Cyclone tradition is now among the best in Iowa.
During the Quik Stats/Varsity Bound era dating back to 2007, HCHS won at least 22 games every year - often topping 30 wins - until finishing 14-4 in a shortened 2020 campaign. Nine of those 14 seasons ended at state.
Making those win totals even more impressive is that the Cyclones never backed down from playing a difficult non-conference slate of games, highlighted by yearly showdowns vs. Bishop Heelan, Sioux City East and Dallas Center-Grimes, among others.
“One of the biggest accomplishments was the consistency of the program,” said Daeges. “Being able to be one of the top programs in the state year in and year out for that long was something to be proud of.
“We went eight times in a row (to state)... I think that is an unbelievable stat, really, to do that... especially in 3A baseball.”
Daeges maintained a tight-knit group of assistant coaches over the years, which only added to the consistency of the program.
Mark Vande Berg was already on the baseball staff when Daeges arrived in 1994 and he continued to coach the JV squad until retiring after the 2019 season.
Joe Heese, a 1987 HCHS graduate, started coaching the freshmen team in the late 1990’s and has been an integral part of the varsity staff since 2001, handling the pitch-calling duties.
More recently, former Cyclone standouts Heath Stein (class of 2004) and Eric Croghan (class of 2010) have joined the coaching staff. Stein became an assistant coach in 2015 and Croghan came aboard in 2016. Jeff Hastert, another former Daeges player who graduated in 2009, served on the coaching staff for a short time as well.
“I really think that I’ve been lucky to have guys that were not only good coaches, but that we worked so well together,” Daeges said. “I’d say at least the last 10 years or so, everybody knew their role as a coach and it was just like a well-oiled machine. We didn’t even have to say anything to each other. We just knew what each other had to do and I think that’s what made our program so strong was those guys being so good and us working together so well.”
The Daeges way:
There are many reasons why Cyclone Baseball has been so consistently good for nearly three decades now, from the Little Cyclones developmental program to community and parental support and simply a strong talent base.
But at the center of it all was Coach Daeges.
Blessed with an extreme knowledge and understanding of the game, Daeges made sure his teams were fundamentally sound and often leaned on pitching and defense. He developed each squad around their strengths, using small-ball strategies and aggressive base running to compensate when a team lacked power.
But in addition to tactics, philosophies and Xs and Os, Daeges had a unique ability to relate to his players and get the most out of them, even as the age gap widened.
“Kids have changed a lot in the last 20 years, and he’s found a way to understand them as that’s happened,” said Heese. “He has the ability to talk to them one-on-one and explain his point of view, let them speak their point of view, and at the end of the day there’s an understanding there.
“I’ve coached a million different sports with different head coaches (and) a lot of different assistant coaches. Steve Daeges relates to the athletes better than anybody that I’ve ever worked with, and it’s not even close... Bar none, he works better with kids than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Stein, an all-state player for Daeges who coached with him the last six years, said that he always made it fun to show up at Jim Goeser Field.
“Having the privilege to play for and coach with Coach Daeges has been a great experience for me,” Stein stated. “He pairs his love and wisdom for the game of baseball with the ability to relate to kids very well, which has obviously led to incredible success.
“He made it very enjoyable going to the yard every day of the summer for myself as well as many others through the years. He definitely will be missed, but his legacy will forever live on (at) Harlan Community.”
Vande Berg, who served as an HCHS assistant baseball coach for 29 years, added: “Steve is an outstanding coach; that fact will not change with retirement. He related to the kids well, had an abundantly high level of baseball intellect and headed an extremely cohesive coaching staff that enjoyed working together and had fun doing it.
“His tenure is an era of Cyclone baseball that may never be matched again with all the consecutive state tournament appearances, not to mention the three state titles and five runner-up finishes. The bar has been set high with his Hall of Fame career. I can truly say it was a pleasure to not only have a friendship with him, but to work alongside of him for over 25 years.”
Heese noted that many of the great Cyclone teams seemed to take on the same demeanor as Daeges - cool, calm and collected. The players stayed relaxed, yet focused, during high-pressure situations, which helped them thrive in big postseason games.
Heese remembers one state tournament game - perhaps for a championship - when 10 minutes before first pitch Daeges was talking to some players off to the side about boxing - one of his other passions.
“Just approach every game the same way, whether you’re playing Red Oak or you’re playing Davenport Assumption,” Heese said of the Daeges philosophy.
“There’s no one game bigger or better than the next one. We try to keep an even keel. You got three hits tonight and tomorrow you might go 0-for-3. Just kind of keep your emotions (level) - that was kind of something he always preached.”
Heese added: “(Daeges) was competitive as s*** but he kept it real. Every team takes on the demeanor of their head coach. If you’ve got a head coach that whines, cries and complains all the time; you watch their team, they do the same thing. You look at our teams over the years - they’re quiet, they’re confident, they’re reserved, they put in their work and they’re snipers.”
So many memories:
Recalling all the memories from 27 mostly-successful baseball seasons is probably an impossible task, Daeges admits. The championship games are easy - win or lose. The last defeat of a season and its sting often lingers with a coach longer than the thrill of a big win.
For Daeges, many of the best memories aren’t even about what happened on the field during a game. It’s about the relationships he built with fellow coaches, the players, their parents, and yes, even some members of the media (the best chats were always off the record).
“All the fun memories that we had, a lot of them were off the field,” he said. “You just think about all the different groundskeepers, the people that (worked for the) city down there through 27 years. Those guys were all pretty good people. Just all the parents - hundreds... It’s hard to thank everybody. That program just doesn’t run on its own.”
When it comes to on-the-field memories, Daeges says he will always be thankful for having the opportunity to coach his two sons in high school. Matt and Zach both enjoyed record-breaking high school careers at HCHS, then played college baseball at Creighton. Zach was a sixth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2006.
“That was one of the highlights... not only being their coach but to be on the field with them and be part of their life from that aspect,” Daeges said.
Daeges still remembers his first practice at HCHS and thinking, “Wow, we have some really good athletes here.”
He fondly remembers the Cyclones’ 6-5 state semifinal win over top-ranked Pella in 2015, when eighth-grader Brett Sears delivered the winning hit. HCHS struck out 15 times on the day. Pella did not strike out once.
He remembers his first state semifinal at Harlan (in 1995) as well. The Cyclones led Benton, Van Horne late in the game when Benton’s Nate Frese - a future Iowa All-American and Chicago Cubs draft pick - stepped to the plate with runners at first and second and one out. Daeges thought about walking Frese intentionally but was talked out of it by his pitcher-catcher battery. Moments later, Frese tripled off the right-center field fence.
“That haunted me for at least 10 years,” Daeges said. “Those are things you remember.”
One year later, HCHS beat Independence for its first state baseball title. They won again in 2003 with a hard-fought win vs. Waukee, then routed Carlisle 12-4 for the 2016 championship.
And so many moments in between.
“That’s where I think it’s tough to just narrow down 27 years in a few words. There’s so many (memories),” Daeges said.
“We have a lot of good stories, but it’s all about the people you’ve been involved with throughout the years - the coaches that you’ve coached with and all the players. It’s pretty special to me and it’s something I guess that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. I think just all the players that you’ve dealt with, their parents and all the other coaches in the league and the relationships you developed through 27 years of baseball is something I guess you can’t really put a price on. It’s priceless.”
The HCHS baseball coaching position was posted on the school’s website March 25 and Pattee says that the administration hopes to make a recommendation for hiring the next head coach by the April 12 board meeting.
Daeges won’t just be disappearing from the HCHS program. He plans to attend a few games throughout the summer, but not all.
“I don’t want to be the guy sitting up there in the lawn chair second guessing every move that’s being made down there on the field,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to sit back and enjoy things a little bit and chuckle. I’ll try to stay involved some. I guess I’ll have to figure that out... I think they’ll be fine.”
Daeges, who played many years of high-level amateur baseball in the Omaha area during his younger days, is playing once again as part of an over-50 city league.
“I’ll still get my baseball fix on Sundays now,” he said.
But his coaching career - all 40-plus years - has come to a close.
Prior to HCHS, Daeges was the head football coach for 13 years at Ashland (Neb.) High School, where he also coached track, basketball and wrestling. After becoming a teacher in Harlan in 1996, Daeges added middle school basketball, middle school football and freshmen football to his baseball coaching duties.
He is adamant about the fact that he will not miss the bus rides. “Those seem to be getting longer all the time,” he said.
On the flip side of the coin...
“The thing I’ll miss the most, believe it or not, is just being on a baseball field and being around the game of baseball. I think the reason I coached so long is it’s a game I love. I still enjoy, even at my age, going out and playing catch. Going to the ball field every day, putting a bat in my hands, being able to hit baseballs and relate to kids in a baseball atmosphere is something I think I’ll really miss the most.
“I just love being around the game of baseball with a bunch of kids. You get to know them on a personal basis, and I think baseball is kind of a lot like life. There’s a lot of ups and downs and it’s a game that... can eat a guy alive mentally when things aren’t going so well. I’m going to miss being around all that on a daily basis and trying to be a problem solver, trying to be a psychiatrist and just trying to help the kids master a game that no one’s ever been able to master.”
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