MAHOMET — Nic DiFilippo remembers it like yesterday. It was May 30, 2007. DiFilippo was in his first season at the helm of Mahomet-Seymour baseball, and he had led the Bulldogs to their first regional championship in eight years.
Now, it was time for the sectionals, and they had a date with LaSalle-Peru.
Coincidentally, it was DiFilippo’s 26th birthday. But birthday celebrations were put on hold as the Bulldogs tried to get past LaSalle-Peru and into the sectional championship game.
LaSalle-Peru was coached by grizzled veteran Bill Booker.
“You’re like the youngest guy I’ve ever played in a sectional,” Booker told DiFilippo before the game.
LaSalle-Peru sent out hurler Karch Kowalczyk to the bump. Kowalczyk would go on to star for Valparaiso University before getting drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 37th round of the 2014 MLB draft.
M-S star Neil Wright crushed a solo homer in the third inning despite playing with an injured hamstring, and the Bulldogs led Kowalczyk and LaSalle-Peru 3-2 as the game headed to the bottom of the fifth. M-S was nine outs away.
But they couldn’t hold on. Kowalczyk hit two doubles and LaSalle-Peru exploded for six runs in the bottom of the fifth and ended the Bulldogs’ season with a 10-5 victory. Five errors doomed DiFilippo and the Bulldogs.
M-S ended the season 23-8.
“They were the better team, and Kowalczyk was a stud, ” DiFilippo remembered. “I didn’t understand the impact of winning a regional and getting to the sectional which hadn’t been done in seven or eight years.”
Life came full circle for DiFilippo last Wednesday. Once again, DiFilippo was matched up against Booker. This time, the Hall of Famer was donning St. Bede’s uniform.
Jack McHale and Jordan Veldman both finished with three hits, and Kyle Kinney pitched four shutout innings as DiFilippo bested Booker in a 13-0 rout.
Nearly 12 years after Booker remarked about DiFilippo’s age, the young guy had just earned career win No. 250.
“It feels good,” DiFilippo said. “It’s a pretty good beginning of a career so far. It’s a good start. It’s about the kids. We’ve had amazing kids over the 12 years that we’ve won 250 games. That’s over 20 wins a year!”
DiFilippo isn’t a kid anymore. He’s got a little gray in his hair. The famous goatee still remains, but things have changed.
All the rivals that DiFilippo looked up to in the Corn Belt Conference have started to retire. Jeff Paul stepped down from Bloomington Central Catholic after 18 years. Greg Bee coached at Normal University High for 16 years and won a state championship. Normal U-High and M-S were bitter rivals for years. Bee is retired now too.
“You watch them retire, and then you’re like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve been here 20 years,’” DiFilippo said. “I’m the old guy now.”
But one thing that hasn’t changed is DiFilippo’s love for Mahomet. DiFilippo was a three-year starting catcher for the Bulldogs from 1997-99. He played for a year at Parkland before realizing that his pop time of 1.95 seconds wasn’t good enough anymore. So, he pivoted to coaching.
He coached junior high football for Mahomet. He was a volunteer freshman baseball coach, and even helped Dan Ryan on the basketball court. All the while, DiFilippo was still in college.
“My parents were worried because I was doing a lot, but I’m like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” DiFilippo said. “When you’re doing what you want, it is work, but it’s fun.”
DiFilippo has coached some incredible talent throughout the years. He owns a list of every player that’s played at the next level. From Wright to Brannon Kwiatkowski to Jason Ziegler to Cully Day to Joe Kenney to Brooks Coetzee.
“Oh, there are so many,” DiFilippo said. “I don’t win any of these games without these kids. They are the ones who won the games. Of all the games that I’ve won, I didn’t throw a ball. I didn’t hit a ball. The kids are doing it. The kids are going to win games and lose games.”
Winning 250 games is a remarkable achievement, but DiFilippo has always preached that there’s more to life than just baseball. DiFilippo is a man of faith, and that’s been tested over the last few years.
Mahomet was rocked with tragedy when three well-known figures died suddenly.
Mike Hellmer was a well-known youth coach and his son, Nick, was a junior at M-S when he died in 2015. Some 13 months later, M-S senior Matt Prather died unexpectedly in his sleep. In May of 2017, junior Jacob Hamilton was killed in an accident. Hamilton’s brother, Bradley, was a senior starter for DiFilippo.
Three straight years of indescribable heartbreak.
“We were really good in baseball those years and once that happened, baseball didn’t matter,” DiFilippo said. “I don’t want to say it ruined the year for the kids, but the chances of winning in the postseason were almost gone. It was difficult to go to practice every day. It was difficult for me to go to practice every day, and it was even tougher for them because their friend had just been killed. I mean, these guys are 15 and 16 years old. How do you wrap your head around it that life is that short? You hope they realize how much all of the coaches care about them.”
DiFilippo has always been focused on his legacy. It’s never been about the wins and losses for DiFilippo. Did you compete? Did you make the people around you better? Did he help his players through those tragic times?
DiFilippo is still a competitor. Despite holding more wins than any other M-S baseball coach, he still has goals for the future. M-S hasn’t won a regional championship since 2009. But it’s bigger than baseball. It always will be bigger than baseball. His hometown doesn’t just mean a lot to DiFilippo. Mahomet means everything.
“For me, it’s life,” DiFilippo said. “It’s all I’ve known. It’s all I want to know. You always want to leave it better than you found it. That’s what I want. You fall in love with the community. I love this place.”