In the biggest moment of his high school career, Ian Krol was young enough to possibly not grasp the gravity of the situation.
With the 2007 Class AA state title on the line, one look of reassurance from Robin Renner spoke volumes for the sophomore left-hander.
“We’re winning 5-1 in the state championship game (against New Trier) and he looks at me in the dugout,” Krol said. “I think it’s like the sixth inning maybe. He looks at me in the dugout. Of course he asked me if I wanted to pitch.
“Me being young, confident and all that, I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ And he basically looked at me. He said, ‘Okay. Go grab a glove. Go get warmed up in the bullpen and close this thing out.’ That’s when I kind of just knew that he (had my back). Robin’s always a positive person.”
A day after throwing 114 pitches over five innings in Neuqua Valley’s state quarterfinal victory over Edwardsville, Krol went the last two innings against the Trevians.
Eleven years may have passed since the Wildcats won the only state crown in school history.
The lessons received from playing two years for Renner, however, remain vivid for Krol on the way to pitching out of the bullpen for four Major League teams.
“Robin just cares,” said Krol, who went 17-2 with a 1.10 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 120 innings during his Wildcat tenure. “He’s a very careful guy and wants everybody to do the best they can. It was definitely a good experience – the way he taught his players how to play the game, respect the game.
“He would always tell us we’re very fortunate, we’re talented and baseball’s a fragile game. He would always want you to respect it and don’t be out of line too much.”
Renner’s decision to retire after leading the Neuqua Valley baseball program for 20 years certainly will leave a void.
After all, he’s one of two men – along with former Naperville Central coach Bill Seiple – to lead a Naperville high school to a state championship in baseball.
As always, Renner takes an unassuming approach to all the success he’s enjoyed.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “You can name any other coach you can possibly think of – if they started Neuqua Valley’s program and coached there from then till now – they would have been able to do every bit, everything that we’ve done and probably more. I believe that to the end of the earth.”
The numbers speak for themselves.
Renner’s teams won 507 games, 12 regionals, five sectionals and made three trips to the state tournament.
More than anything, consistency marked the sweat equity Renner spent into building the program from the ground up – winning at least 30 games seven times.
That’s the way longtime right-hand man John Fumagalli sees it.
Fumagalli, the Wildcats’ pitching coach since 2001, pointed to Renner’s organization in regards to their daily practice schedules.
“Robin is a great teacher of the game,” Fumagalli said.
Quality players kept cycling through the program and the Wildcats just kept winning.
Jake Blair, Paul Dean, Dan Walsh and Keelan Amelianovich eventually paved the way for Burke Baldwin, Jordan Tokarz, Rob Elliott, Krol, Mike McKinley and Geoff Rowan.
The start of this decade saw Mike and David Gerber and Nick Blackburn set the stage for two more 30-win seasons in 2012 and 2013.
David Gerber, who’s currently in the Seattle Mariners’ organization after becoming Creighton’s all-time saves leader, was part of those two teams in 2012 and 2013.
A year after going 8-1 with a 1.21 ERA in 52 innings as a junior, David was a part of the staff that led the 2013 group to fourth place in Class 4A.
Even before slipping on a varsity uniform at Neuqua Valley, David was cognizant of Renner’s presence.
As his father, Mike, Sr., was dealing with treatment for kidney cancer, David received an upfront look at the compassion that defines the man.
Renner’s countless hours at the hospital regaling and swapping baseball stories prior to Mike, Sr.’s death in May 2009 was all David needed to see.
“He had earned my respect years before I got to play for him as a junior (in 2012),” David said.”
James Gargano and Ryan Wheeler both played parts in the final two chapters of the Renner era – to the tune of a combined record of 66-6-1.
Gargano and Wheeler held down shortstop in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and hit .409 and .449, respectively, as seniors.
They both don’t hesitate when the topic turns to their high school coach.
“Coach Renner is honestly a father figure to me off the field, too,” said Gargano, who just completed his freshman year at Butler. “Just always talking to me off the field, seeing how I’m doing, things like that. It goes a long way.
“Obviously he has over 500 wins and countless amount of accomplishments. But I think the thing that defines him the most is the person he is off the field.”
Wheeler’s two-year run as a middle infielder was off the charts as he leaves the program as its all-time leader in average (.440) and hits (120).
Not showing one bit of hesitation in grabbing the baton from Gargano as the straw that stirred the drink, Wheeler rarely struggled.
But he was keenly aware of the helping hand that was always there.
“Everything (Renner) does is for us,” Wheeler said. “And even when we’re down or we’re struggling out there, he’s always there and he’s always just telling us what we need to do better. Just to keep going. He’s been a very influential coach – one of the most influential coaches I’ve ever had.”
In 2019, there’ll be a new man – James Thornton – in the dugout piloting Neuqua Valley baseball and shepherding what has been built.
While the focus has now turned to a well-deserved retirement, Renner scoffs at the notion that the program is ‘his baby.’
It’s much more macro rather than micro.
“I don’t look at it like it’s mine,” Renner said. “I consider myself a very, very small part of something that’s much bigger than any one of us. For real. … I guess somebody has to be in charge of making decisions, but I never considered myself like it was mine or I was more important than anybody else because I’m not.”