He still remembers the first win as though it happened yesterday instead of 1982.
“We were at Hamilton County – they were McLeansboro High School back then – and we got a hit in the seventh inning to go ahead 3-2 and we hung on,” Jay Thompson said. “It was one of the most exciting games I’ve been involved with.”
From that modest start have come another 802 wins, including 30 this year that boosted the long-time Harrisburg baseball coach to a rarely-reached milestone at the prep level. His team’s 8-0 blanking of Eldorado May 15 gave him career win No. 800 in 32 seasons.
That’s just over 25 wins a year, a pace that stands well against the test of time. And how Thompson has reached this point is equal parts instructive and revealing. He’s bent with the times, yet still insists on teaching the game in his exacting way to players who share his passion and work ethic.
John Crabb, who played for Thompson from 1985-88 and is now an assistant coach under him, marvels at how he gets players to buy into his methods.
“As the game has changed, he’s forged through those changes and still relates to the young guys and talks fundamentals in a language they can understand,” Crabb said. “His lack of being happy where he’s at has let him continue to progress and grow.
“If someone isn’t performing up to his expectations, he’ll get on them. But if they do what he asks them to do, he’s the first one off the bench, ready to pat them on the butt.”
Thompson was happy to win one game back in 1982. He sure didn’t see another 802 coming. But he’s gotten a couple of gifts most prep coaches don’t – a parade of talented players and teams full of players eager to work and do what he asked.
As he put it more than once in a phone conversation, he was just along for the ride.
“I don’t think anybody ever sets out with the objective to win X number of games,” he said. “Five hundred wins or 800 wins or any big numbers weren’t even a consideration. We’ve been very fortunate here.
“We’ve had an inordinate amount of good players come through this town. I can’t say enough about the quality of players we’ve had. Even more so, the dedication and quality of the players here are second to none. Over the years, there’s been a standard set.”
Six of his teams have achieved top four finishes in the state, with his 1989 team winning the Class 2A title with a 32-1 record. He was part of a second state champion team in 2004, but with a twist.
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For that year and 2005, as well as 2007-09, Thompson was an assistant to his brother, Joe. Those five seasons have helped Thompson gain a different perspective on coaching.
“I really learned a lot during that time,” he said. “There’s a big difference between head coach and assistant coach. It gave me a chance to step back and just coach baseball. You don’t feel like every loss is your fault and you don’t stay awake every time you lose a game. I’ve been able to use that perspective to help coach.”
That may have helped the Bulldogs give Thompson his sixth 30-win season this spring. They started 4-6 in their first 10 games. After a 2-1 SIRR Ohio loss at home to Benton on April 4, they stood at 1-2 in the league.
The postgame atmosphere that day was as gloomy as the skies above the field named for Thompson. But the veteran mentor sensed his players weren’t about to settle for a mediocre season.
“People have been telling these guys for years that they’ll be good when they’re seniors, but they didn’t want to wait,” Thompson said. “It was unacceptable to them, and they really impressed me with that. Who knows what the future holds?”
Shortly after that, Harrisburg started a 19-game winning streak. It won the SIRR Ohio title, then a regional, and then a sectional with a pulsating 7-5 win over Nashville. That it was no-hit 3-0 by eventual state champ Teutopolis in the Super-Sectionals didn’t put a damper on the season.
Thompson could have the last team standing next spring. Every starter returns, including ace pitcher Isaac Crabb, who’s already received multiple offers from Power 5 schools.
Thompson should add quite a few numbers to his career win total next spring, and perhaps for springs to come. He said last week that he plans to coach as long as his enthusiasm and health permit. The only concession he’s made to age is he doesn’t pitch batting practice any more because his shoulder won’t allow it.
Regardless of whether he has nine players back or none, John Crabb says Thompson’s thirst for teaching teenagers about baseball and life remains unquenched.
“The teaching of the game and the pride he takes in doing things the right way is what sets our program apart from other programs in Southern Illinois,” Crabb said of Thompson. “There’s an equal amount of teaching about life as there is baseball.
“It’s all a small part of the total package that he brings. He doesn’t believe in win at all costs when it comes to high school baseball. His attention to detail – on and off the field – is second to none.”