After talking to his team in shallow left field following Loyola’s 9-3 win over Evanston at home Saturday in the Class 4A sectional final, Loyola head coach Nick Bridich put the postgame interview on hold to visit with his family.
With eyes still red, he returned to the field to meet with reporters. It was clear the outcome triggered an emotional release in Bridich. In his sixth season with the Ramblers, he had led them to their first sectional title since 2008 and second in program history.
“Watching the kids celebrate, kids that I’ve seen grow and develop into outstanding student-athletes, and seeing their enjoyment,” Bridich said. “I don’t think we need wins or championships to prove we’ve been successful, but they are nice. It takes an incredible amount of sacrifice from the coaches, parents, players, our families to do this. I thought about the sacrifices my family has made to allow me to build something.
“I’m an emotional guy, and when we won, it all came to a head.”
Loyola’s season ended Monday with an 8-4 loss to Huntley in the Class 4A supersectional at Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg.
Before he hired him in 2012, Loyola athletic director Pat Mahoney said Bridich caught his attention during his four seasons at De La Salle. Mahoney could tell Bridich exhibited the qualities he looks for in a coach.
“I was impressed by the way he handled himself on the field and in our interactions,” said Mahoney, a 1990 Loyola graduate who played baseball for the Ramblers. “He had a vision of how to build a program from top to bottom.”
Bridich took over a varsity team that went 12-25 the previous season. He didn’t fare any better in his first year, finishing 12-22, but he was building the foundation for the future. In his second season, he was 13-21 and won a Class 4A regional title, the first of three.
“It was a major undertaking, and I knew it would take time,” Bridich said.
A 1998 graduate of Marquette University, a Jesuit high school in Milwaukee, who played college baseball at Butler, Bridich comes from a baseball family. His father, Rick, and older brother, Jeff, both are former baseball players who made a career in the sport. Rick coached baseball at Marquette, while Jeff works in the front office of the Colorado Rockies.
After his playing career was over, Nick moved to Chicago to attend graduate school at Illinois-Chicago, where he later served as an assistant coach for the Flames from 2003-2005. He left UIC to take a job at Marist as a teacher and assistant baseball coach before getting his first head coaching job at De La Salle in 2009.
“Baseball is a lifestyle, and one that requires you to make sacrifices to the people closest to you, like my wife and kids,” Bridich said.
At Loyola, Bridich was making progress. In his third season, the Ramblers went 18-17 and captured their second consecutive Class 4A regional championship.
“We train the players to be physically good enough to play, but we also spend a lot of time teaching them the mental part of the game and what it means to be successful,” he said. “You have to separate your emotions from the moment and be able to handle failure, if you want to call it that. You can’t dwell on the past or have anxiety for the future.”
This is the third season in a row that the Ramblers (23-10-1) have won at least 21 games. The last time that happened was a six-year run from 2001-06.
“I’ve seen the growth, for sure,” Mahoney said. “They have been playing great baseball, and they do it in one of the toughest conferences in the state. Not that I needed to know Nick is doing a great job, but this sectional title is validation.”
Senior pitcher and captain Ben Wagner had the best season of his career and said Bridich’s guidance was instrumental to his improvement. The right-hander’s highlight was pitching a complete game in the sectional final. Wagner finished the year 9-0 with a 2.85 ERA.
“He totally changed my confidence level, and how I process things,” Wagner said. “He’s so great at handling players. Each player and each team is different, and he’s good at making the necessary adjustments.”
Bridich said his coaching staff — which consists of Fred Smart (Class of 2012), Matt Smith and Kevin Garvey — deserves recognition for their contributions to the program. This was the first season all four were in the dugout together.
“We are not where we are without them,” Bridich said. “And I also work for unbelievable guy in Pat Mahoney.”
As satisfying as Saturday’s win was for everybody associated with Loyola, Bridich said he hopes it’s the start of a long run of sustained success.
Wagner is convinced.
“I have no doubt they will continue to get better,” he said. “I’m happy I was part of the senior class that played a role in moving the program in the right direction.”
Photo credit: Melissa Krein/Loyola