PEKIN — The Henry-Senachwine baseball team stole 253 bases last season, third-most in Illinois High School Association history.

The maestro of that aggressive base running strategy now is the Pekin baseball coach. 

Matt Emmons was hired late last month to replace Larry Davis, who retired after 21 seasons in charge of the Dragons. Davis was the dean of Mid-Illini Conference baseball coaches.

Emmons, 31, isn't concerned about jumping into the fire competing in the Mid-Illini, one of the state's best baseball conferences. Pekin has never won a Mid-Illini baseball title.

"It doesn't faze me," he said. "At Henry, we were one of the smallest schools (155 students last school year) in the Tri-County Conference and there are some good athletic programs like Ottawa Marquette, Putnam County and Seneca in the conference, but everyone knew we were going to compete in baseball.

Henry (21-11) stole its 253 bases in 32 games, averaging nearly 13 swipes a game, and won a Class 1A regional championship.

"I like to bunt. I like to hit-and-run. I like to steal bases," Emmons said. "Will we do that at Pekin? I don't know. It depends upon the skill sets of the guys on our team."

What's more important to Emmons now is developing a team culture of respect for one other.

"The IHSA record for stolen bases in a season is 294. If we didn't have some games cancelled last season, I think we could have broken that record."

"I want us to be a tight-knit group so we play with a purpose, we play for each other. If someone makes a mistake, we'll pick him up," he said. "And I want us to have fun. If all that happens, and the guys are willing to run through a wall for me because we have a good relationship, winning will come."

Emmons was hired as a driver's education teacher at Pekin, again replacing Davis, before he was hired as the new baseball coach. He does a lot of driving. He lives in Lacon, about a 50-minute trek from Pekin.

Long road to Pekin

Emmons played baseball at Midland from 2005-09 for former Limestone baseball coach Derek Renz. Emmons began his baseball coaching career in 2010 as a volunteer assistant at Midland and was the Henry-Senachwine baseball coach for five years, compiling a 53-50 record. Five of his players went on to play baseball in college.

Emmons also was the boys and girls cross country coach at Henry-Senachwine the last five years, and he was the K-12 school district's athletic director during the tumultuous, COVID-19 pandemic-plagued 2020-21 school year.

He was a driver's education and social studies teacher at Henry-Senachwine for six years.

A 2014 Eureka College graduate, Emmons earned a master's degree in education administration from Aurora University in 2017.

"Matt's energy and passion for coaching caught my attention during his interview (with the selection committee)," Pekin athletics director Cole Stoner said, "And more importantly, his passion for kids and creating a culture of developing good young men, good human beings, not just baseball players."

With Emmons hired as the coach, work has begun become to assemble a coaching staff for the Pekin baseball program. Former volunteer coach Sam Jones is the first hire.

Larry Davis

So long to Larry Davis

Davis, 55, was a driver's education teacher at Pekin for 30 years. He was on coach Terry Brecher's baseball coaching staff at Pekin for seven years before replacing Brecher in 2001. His career record as coach was 278-321-1, including a 10-12 mark last season.

Baseball wasn't Davis' only gig during his coaching career. He was an assistant coach for 33 years in the Pekin football program, and an assistant boys basketball coach with coach Dave Mott for 16 years — three years at Midwest Central, six years at Limestone and seven years at Pekin, finishing with the 2012-13 season.

"It was time for me to retire," Davis said. "Coaching is something I always wanted to do and I enjoyed it, especially preparing kids to compete. I worked with a lot of great kids in our baseball program and we had some success. It's tough playing in the Mid-Illini and then going against Class 4A schools in the state series."

Davis' best season as the Dragons' baseball coach was his first one. Pekin (21-15) shared the Mid-State 6 Conference championship with Peoria Notre Dame, won a Class 2A regional championship in the two-class system, and fell one victory short of making it to the state finals.