Baseball provides special father/son bond for Eldreds
Coaching your own child at the varsity level can be a tricky proposition.
That’s something longtime Otsego baseball coach Matt Eldred knows about through first-hand experience.
“It sure can present some challenges,” said Eldred, whose four-year stint coaching his son Will wrapped up last month. “Am I favoring him over teammates? Am I harder on him to make sure everyone knows that I am not favoring him? What are his teammates and other parents thinking or vocalizing?”
To help him prepare for those challenges, Matt Eldred turned to a colleague.
“I did seek out former Gull Lake baseball coach Bill Blakely for some insight as Will headed into high school and Bill was nearing the end of his time coaching his son Drew,” Matt Eldred said. “Both Drew and Will helped to simplify things for their dads by the way they performed.”
Will Eldred’s play on the field certainly did help alleviate any potential criticism from outside sources.
After hitting .329 as a freshman, Will went on to post batting marks of .434 as a sophomore and .505 as a junior.
“My teammates never really gave me too hard of a time, but there’s always the occasional coach’s kid comment,” Will Eldred said. “It was always in a joking manner, but I was aware of the position I was in, especially freshman year, and I tried to take every opportunity to show that I wasn’t complacent or entitled.
“I volunteered to take the bucket of balls in, to take tees up to the cage and stay to help pick up balls. I earned the respect of my teammates by trying to always be the hardest worker on the field and treating them with respect.”
Although it wasn’t always easy, he found a way to separate the coach/player relationship at the field and the father/son relationship at home.
“It was tougher at the beginning to keep that separation, but it got better as we navigated through it,” Matt Eldred said. “Will never took liberties because his dad was the coach and I don’t think he was pampered by me. I was able to be just dad during football and basketball seasons, which probably made the baseball season easier when I was in full coach mode.”
It also helped having an understanding wife/mom at home.
“My wife Lisa has always been supportive and understanding,” Matt Eldred said. “It is not an easy thing to deal with a coach during the season, trust me. Then add on top of that a very competitive athlete with high expectations and you have the recipe for some interesting evenings at home.
“Lisa was a great softball player and coach and had a unique perspective on what we were going through and how she could best handle any of the baloney we happened to bring home with us.”
Will Eldred was part of a quartet of freshman who started on Otsego’s varsity squad in 2016. Addison Atwater, Jayden Dentler and Jaekob Sallee were the others.
In the seasons that followed, more of Will Eldred’s classmates and friends joined the team, creating a unique dynamic.
“I’ve known the guys on our team for years,” Will Eldred said. “Many of them are my closest friends and they were able to form a relationship with my dad before he became their coach. I believe this allowed for a transparency and openness that isn’t found on many teams.
Matt Eldred agreed.
“The part I hadn’t really thought about was how close my relationship would get to be with friends of Will’s who were his teammates in youth sports and into high school,” he said. “It was awesome.”
Will Eldred and the other three freshman helped Otsego to a 14-15 overall record in 2016 that included an 8-10 showing in the Wolverine Conference that was good for fifth place. Otsego improved to 20-16-1 (10-8, third place in league play) in 2017 and 22-10 (14-3, third place in league play) in 2018.
Then came Will Eldred’s senior year of 2019, when Otsego went 27-6-1 overall with a 14-4 record in the conference to give the Bulldogs a share of the league title for the first time in more than three decades.
Otsego also won district titles in 2018 and 2019 to account for half of the four district crown’s won by Matt Eldred during his tenure.
“Oh, man, it really was awesome to have those experiences with Will on the diamond,” Matt Eldred said. “He was also on the diamond this year when I reached 300 career varsity wins. His class of baseball players had some lofty goals and to be a part of helping him and his teammates reach some of them is something I will never forget.”
Matt Eldred will also never forget some of the “smaller” moments he shared with Will, who also played three years of varsity basketball and football.
“I will try hard to hold on to the games of catch in the yard, rebounding for him and seeing my ability to beat him one-on-one slip away year by year,” Matt Eldred said. “I distinctly remember playing catch with the football this past fall toward the end of the season with him and thinking that this may be the last time we throw the football together.”
And while the days of having his dad as a coach has come to an end, Will Eldred will continue to carry the lessons he learned from the experience.
“I will always remember his motto: next play,” he said. “In any aspect of life, you can’t worry about past mistakes and failures. All you can do is focus on winning the next pitch and having the right state of mind. Those two words got us through numerous tough situations on the field and will, hopefully, get us through any adversity we may encounter in the future.”