Knowing this season would probably be his last after 20 years at Althoff High was extremely tough on longtime Crusaders baseball coach Brett Isaacs.
He tried to keep the decision a secret, but when Isaacs finally told the team he was retiring Wednesday, the emotions came quicker than a Nolan Ryan fastball.
“There were a lot of emotions from coach and some of the guys,” said Althoff senior Ben Hankammer, a pitcher-first baseman headed to Southwestern Illinois College. “As a coach, he was incredible. He never had a ton of superstars and to have the type of carer that he did, it’s really a testament to his players and how hard he worked to develop them. It was about playing the game the right way.
“I can’t thank him enough for all that he did for all of us.”
The 45-year-old Isaacs led Althoff to a 376-256 record and four regional championships, including a 20-9 record this season. The Crusaders reached the championship game of the Class 2A Vandalia Sectional before losing 4-1 to Teutopolis on Monday.
“Unless you win a state championship you never get as far as you want to, or never get as far as you think you should,” Isaacs said. “There’s always the other game you feel you should have won. But I think I’ve learned to appreciate the effort that the kids gave and how tough it was to get there.
“My very first year at Nashville as a JV coach we went to state under Dave Vieth. It seemed easy, like you would do it all the time. You always have that thirst to go back.”
For Isaacs, a special education teacher at Belleville East, coaching was always about the kids.
“I wanted them to know that I cared about them,” Isaacs said. “Not just whether they made a play for me, but off the field that I cared about them. I hope that came across and I think for the most part it did. My former players are like my family, there’s no doubt about it.”
Now he hopes to be spending a little more time with his own family. He and wife Michelle have two sons, Jake (eighth grade) and Luke (fifth grade) and a third-grade daughter, Olivia.
“It really comes down to being more available at home and being able to be at my kids’ games,” he said. “I felt like I was cheating both sides sometimes and it got to be difficult. There’s been times where I’m coaching five sports at one time among all three of (my kids), and I love that and enjoy that.”
A Pinckneyville native who played college baseball at Murray State, Isaacs helped produce 49 college players over the years and at least two minor-league players in former Althoff stars Erik Huber and Brett Huber. Erik Huber starred at Eastern Illinois University and played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, while younger brother Brett Huber set the career saves record at Ole Miss and then played in the Detroit Tigers organization.
Among the other Division I players at Althoff under Isaacs were Jake Friederich (St. Louis University), Brad Beatty and Jim Beever (Southeast Missouri) and Shawn Hampton (Siena).
“I’m very proud of that, but I’m equally proud of all the kids that went on and chose other careers,” he said. “I’ve had some fantastic kids and it’s been a pleasure the last couple weeks — especially when we won the regional and had some success — to get so many texts or phone calls from former players that I’ve had.”
Isaacs’ Althoff teams were never blessed with many superstars, instead relying on fundamentals and the collective talent of the club to achieve success.
“We ran and we played very aggressive and that’s something I always loved to do,” Isaacs said. “I told the kids the other day that I thought this was the perfect team for me because we got so much better defensively and I was really proud of that.
“We would have loved to have hit more home runs but we didn’t. We knew we had to win games by squeeze bunting, stealing home, things like that.”
Isaacs lives in Freeburg and of his best friends is former major league pitcher Kirk Rueter, a Nashville High graduate from Hoyleton and former college teammate at Murray State.
Retiring was not an easy decision for Isaacs, who had close relationships with many coaches in the area and two decades worth of players, parents and family members.
“I was pretty sure even before this season started that I was done,” he said. “I think some of (the players) probably figured it out a little bit or suspected, but I tried to be very guarded about that because I didn’t want the attention on my about that.
“I didn’t want them going into the postseason with any extra pressure. I just wanted them to enjoy it and I enjoyed it along with them.”