Saint Louis finds uncommon success under coach who recognized his calling

Darin Hendrickson finished his college baseball career in 1992 as one of the best pitchers in the history of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, just across the Missouri River from St. Louis. He knew professional baseball wasn’t a legitimate option, so he hoped to parlay his political science degree into law school admission. Hendrickson took the LSAT and applied to several Midwestern law schools, including Saint Louis University.

“When you’re 20-something, you have a lot of aspirations,” he said. “But then I realized right away that I missed athletics and maybe athletics was my calling.”

He stayed at SIU-Edwardsville, became an assistant coach and got his master’s degree in sociology in 1995. He decided that instead of chasing one title — Darin Hendrickson, Esq. — he wanted to pursue another. It would be far less financially rewarding at first, but much more gratifying in the long run: Coach Darin Hendrickson.

“I think it was the best thing I ever did,” he said. “The competition of sports, that was the thing I missed. Besides, the world’s got enough lawyers.”

Hendrickson eventually made it to Saint Louis, as the school’s head baseball coach. He now works a half mile from the law school he once wanted to attend. It took him 15 years to land on campus, but since he was hired in the summer of 2007, he has ushered the Billikens to uncommon success, albeit with little fanfare in a baseball-mad city. Tonight brings the opportunity for his greatest victory, as Saint Louis will try to snap South Carolina’s 24-game NCAA tournament home winning streak, dating to 2002.

Just as their coach rose through anonymous Division II, III and junior college jobs in his journey to the NCAA tournament, the Billikens took a difficult route into the tournament.

The Billikens went 36-18 (17-7 Atlantic 10) during the regular season and won the league’s regular season for the second straight year. But just like last year, they had no shot at an at-large NCAA tournament bid, even though they are now considered one of this tournament’s toughest No. 4 regional seeds. In 2012, they lost their Atlantic 10 tournament opener, went 1-2 in the event and were finished. This year, they again dropped the opener, last Thursday morning.

They had to win later that day. Hendrickson wondered if his players would shake the 7-6 loss to Xavier, which they led 6-5 after seven innings. They answered by jumping out to a 7-0 lead on Richmond after two innings.

“I think that’s when we said: All right, if we keep rolling, we’ve got a shot at this thing,” said Mike Vigliarolo, who leads Saint Louis with a .347 batting average.

The Billikens’ lineup is prolific, with six players hitting .319 or better. After facing elimination last week, they slugged their way into the NCAA tournament. They beat Richmond, and then won two games Friday and two Saturday to win take the title — four wins in 27 hours. In the five victories, they scored 41 runs and had 79 hits.

So here they are, trying to win their first tournament game since they made the 1965 College World Series. They went 0-2 in each of their three tournament trips since: 1966, 2006 and 2010. From 1971-2005, they had two winning seasons: 30-19 in 1977 and 25-24 in 1996. This year, they had their fifth straight winning record, and are 82-37 since the start of last year.

They did this with players who took circuitous paths to Saint Louis. Vigliarolo, a sophomore, grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and lived on his own at a Florida prep school for his final two years of high school, because he wanted better baseball competition. Senior Alex Kelly ranks second on the team with a .340 batting average and first with 60 runs batted-in. He is from Fort Collins, Colo., played quarterback at Colorado State for a year, missed baseball and spent two years on the diamond at a Kansas junior college, before joining the Billikens.

Their coach is rooted in the area. Hendrickson grew up across the river in Illinois. His first head coaching job, in 1995, came at Fontbonne University, in suburban St. Louis, which was starting a Division III program. His first roster comprised 18 players. He doubled as coach and athletic director at a St. Louis junior college. He twice made the Division II national semifinals at Central Missouri, a school with a live mule mascot named Mancow.

As an offseason gig, Hendrickson threw batting practice for the St. Louis Cardinals, which he still does, less often. Many in St. Louis would pay to do this. Few cities adore baseball more.

“That’s what I thought,” Kelly said.

Then he saw the Billikens’ home crowds, which averaged 137 this season.

“That’s generous,” Vigliarolo said.

Said Kelly: “You can count them.”

Catcher Grant Nelson said limited fan support “makes us appreciate stages like this.” Tonight, 8,200-plus fans and an ESPN2 television audience will watch them try to end USC’s streak, and cast a spotlight on a low-profile program that attracted players from afar who saw its potential.

“So come and visit us, and maybe you’ll love it, too,” Hendrickson said. “But we can’t promise that we’ll have more than 130 people there.”

He paused for a beat. He swears he has never regretted avoiding law school, not even in his early coaching jobs. But like any sharp attorney, he made sure to clarify, for the record.

“That was a joke,” he said.