Rob Heller has returned to Ellsworth High School's football field, but he won't be found tossing the pigskin around this spring.
Instead, Heller will hold Panther baseball practice on Fuller-Symes Field until he can begin a new chapter of his coaching career on a dry baseball diamond.
Heller was hired as the Panthers new head baseball coach in February after Ryan Christenson gave up his head coach duties to take an assistant coaching position with the University of Wisconsin-Stout Blue Devils. The turnover was unexpected for the returning Panther players, but seniors Cole Woodland and Lucas Kemmerer believe their familiarity with Heller will make for an easy adjustment this season.
"(Heller) just kind of jumped in and took it by the ropes, and we're starting to flow really well at practice," Woodland said. "I haven't really noticed many differences, but I think things are going really well so far."
"I'm pretty happy, because I thought he'd be a little more unprepared," Kemmerer said, teasing his coach, "but he came in pretty prepared."
Heller also serves as the Panthers' head football coach and as an assistant wrestling coach and held an assistant coaching position on the baseball team under former head coach Steve Block.
"The only thing I was worried about was having the permission to be the head coach for two sports," Heller said. "I really appreciate the administration's support and belief in me to coach two sports. Coach C, athletic director (Ann) Huppert and the Ellsworth baseball family have been great, and they've made the transition as easy as possible."
Along with his support from the community, Heller's familiarity with his players and the program influenced his willingness to sign up for the head coaching gig on such short notice.
"I always thought Ryan would be an excellent collegiate coach, and I'm glad he's getting the opportunity to do that, and it was just kind of unfortunate how the whole series of events broke down, but he has to take advantage of those opportunities," Heller said. "I have a good relationship with these kids, and I'm familiar with the program and the expectations, so that's helped me out a lot."
Ellsworth baseball has been highly acclaimed for many years, and the 2018 season only raised the bar for the Panthers' program.
On paper, the 16-7 2018 Panthers didn't look like a state-qualifying team. Last year's late start and jam-packed season affected all teams, including the Panthers, who entered the postseason with a 9-6 record.
"I guess we didn't really worry about (our record), because we knew that if we got hot we'd just keep going," Woodland said.
The Panthers pulled off a seven-game win streak when it mattered and ended their five-year state tournament drought by defeating Wisconsin Dells in an exciting 4-3 sectional finals victory.
The 2018 Panthers were led by a talented, versatile group of seniors who will be missed this season, but Heller and his players are confident in who will fill this season's roster.
"It is difficult losing them," Woodland said about last year's seniors, "but we just have to be our own class and not try to be the same as them. We need to be good leaders like they were, but we also need to be ourselves."
"That was my first group of freshmen when I got to Ellsworth," Heller said. "I saw all of their successes, and they were obviously a high-caliber group of baseball players. But like Cole said, we're not going to try to replace those guys. We're looking for guys who can step up and embrace their own roles this year and see where that takes us."
Woodland and Kemmerer said they'll be willing to lead by example and vocally this season, and Heller would like to see his seniors take on larger leadership roles than they did during the football season.
"I'd like to see them embrace leadership roles even more," Heller said. "It's their senior year of baseball, and I want to see them own it and lead the correct way. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We're not going to win a conference title in late March, we're not going to win a state title in late March, we just have to take it one practice and one game at a time and see where that takes us. I think these guys are willing to accept that role."
So far, so good.
Heller has been impressed with his players' open-mindedness, willingness to accept feedback and ability to make corrections early on. "A lot of them have already made big steps in a week and a half with their swings," Heller said. "That's been a pleasant surprise, and I think that'll only help us as the season goes on.
"What I've been preaching is I don't want them to think baseball, I want them to play baseball. Physical mistakes are going to happen, but if we can play ball and eliminate the mental mistakes and execute on coverages, I think we'll be just fine."
Like last year's seniors, Woodland and Kemmerer have high goals for their teammates this season, including a Middle Border Conference title and a return to the state tournament. To get there, the two seniors want to see more consistent play from themselves and their teammates.
"I'd like to see everyone play their own role and avoid being sporadic," Woodland said. "Everyone has a bad day, but you should at least come and play hard every day."
Yet, Woodland and Kemmerer know that the 2019 season won't be defined by their first game. If last season taught them anything, it's to take the season one game at a time and enjoy the moments they have playing together. Outdoors, especially.
"We'll either come out strong and try to keep that rolling, or it may be average and we'll have some work to do," Woodland said. "But regardless, we're all pretty excited knowing that we'll be able to start on time."