ORION — Hailing from the Chicago suburb of Lockport, it was not until doing a stint as an assistant coach at Alleman that Thomas Smith became fully aware of the Orion baseball program and its strength and success.
"I was teaching and working with the kids at Alleman and learning from (head coach) Jerry Burkhead," he said. "I knew a little bit about Orion, but when they beat Alleman in 2019, that put them on the map for me.
"I started learning more about them, about how Orion was traditionally strong in sports like football and volleyball as well as baseball."
Following two seasons on Burkhead's staff with the Pioneers (2018-19, with the 2020 season canceled due to COVID-19), Smith is getting to know the Chargers even more up close and personal as their new head coach.
He was named to the position this past January. Smith succeeds Jeremy Jungwirth, who presided over the most successful chapter in the history of Orion baseball. In his three years with the Chargers, Jungwirth's teams posted a 60-34 record. They captured three straight IHSA Class 2A regional championships and won the Three Rivers Conference's West Division title in 2019, going 8-2 in the league and finishing 19-10 overall.
The 2017 Orion squad brought home the program's sole sectional and super-sectional trophies to date, capping a 21-14 season with a fourth-place finish at the state tournament in Peoria.
"What Jeremy did was create a strong foundation to build off of, but with 2020 canceled, it was almost like taking five steps back," Smith said. "That hurt everyone in Illinois. It put the momentum here on hold, so now, it's almost like having to rebuild again."
Indeed, the Chargers have only two holdovers from their 2019 roster still on the field — senior pitcher/infielder/outfielder Jarrett Thornburg and junior pitcher/first baseman/outfielder Quinn Hoftender. The only other senior on the ’21 roster is first baseman/outfielder Gavin Hamerlinck.
As a freshman two years ago, Hoftender was named to the Three Rivers West Division first team, batting .243 with two doubles, two home runs, 12 runs scored and 11 RBIs.
"There will be some growing pains this year for sure, but it'll pay off for us in the long run," said Smith, who followed his prep baseball career at Lockport with collegiate stints at Joliet Junior College and the University of St. Francis, also in Joliet.
"Right now, getting the kids in the game and getting them varsity reps, it'll bode well for us in the future."
Orion is off to a 2-2 start this spring, including an 11-7 setback to Sherrard in its Three Rivers West opener earlier this week. But as he alluded to, this is only the beginning to what Smith feels could be another lengthy run of success for Charger baseball.