By Tracy Record and Patrick Sand
West Seattle Blog co-publishers
With a record of 398-256, West Seattle High School baseball coach Velko Vitalich has decided a 31-year career is long enough.
“I really enjoyed this year’s group of kids,” he told WSB in a conversation at WSHS this week. “It was a great way to end it.”
So why stop now?
“As much as I enjoy it …it’s getting harder to do – physically, there’s a lot to do, it’s draining.” He said he sees “good young coaches” at meetings and thinks there’s someone out there to take his place. “I probably do too many things too long,” he laughed, saying he “just had to decide” – and during the season, he did.
It’s only been four years since the most-successful of all those years – when WSHS finished #2 in the state in 2013:
(May 25, 2013, postgame photo by Greg Slader)
The coach keeps track of his alums.
That year, “Sam Hellinger was our big pitcher – he’s graduating from Gonzaga this year.”
He’s immensely proud that “most of my kids have gone to college and played in college.” He estimates he’s coached more than 750 players over the years at WSHS. Many of them “come back around to say hi, or come to fundraisers,” or exchange e-mail or social-media messages with the coach. “I really enjoy the kids.”
His coaching career at WSHS actually started with other sports. He played baseball and basketball in high school, then basketball in college, and when he started substitute teaching and coaching at WSHS – his own alma mater (1973) – he coached the girls-basketball team. That started in 1978 and continued for 26 years; he also coached girls’ soccer and golf along the way. “I was busy for a while.”
But, he says, “I never thought I’d be the baseball coach – John Robinson was here, thought (he would do it) forever.”
Instead – here’s Vitalich, wrapping up almost a third of a century (which included, WSB archives remind us, regional Coach of the Year honors in 2012, and other honors along the way). We asked what changes he has seen, aside from the players moving through.
The surface of Hiawatha Field next door to WSHS has changed multiple times, he replies: “Thankfully we finally got the Field Turf … (now) it only really needs an outfield fence” to be even better, but, he notes, since it’s an Olmsted Park, “some hoops to jump through” regarding changes. (His history with Hiawatha, we later learn, goes back to Pee-Wee days in his childhood.)
Another memory: The Indians-to-Wildcats name change 15 years ago, which he recalls as “difficult for some of the alums; I knew it was going to come someday.”
One thing that has not changed: “We’ve had such a great community base, almost self-sufficient. The kids in the community were so good at selling, fundraisers, things … (and) winning a lot of games.” He also takes pride in WSHS selling enough Mariners’ tickets each year to qualify for the annual High School Classic games at Safeco Field – and the Wildcats have “sold enough tickets to go do it again next year.”
Some other numbers from his 31 years:
*Made the playoffs 26 times
*Went to the state tournament 14 times
*Won five metro championships
*Won division championships 15 times
“I think it will continue … some great coaches are applying.”
He didn’t break the news to everyone until the recent spring banquet, but along the course of the season, he “kind of had a feeling” he would make the decision to wrap it up.
So what’s next? He’s going to continue working with special-education students in a vocational program at district headquarters in SODO. And he’s going to coach golf for one more season at WSHS, so he’s not leaving the school just yet.
And he’s continuing to officiate high-school basketball – he had a game coming up in Auburn not long after our conversation.
“I love sports,” he smiles.
(As for who’s up next in the head-coach slot – no decision yet.)