Mike Hallinan considers himself a baseball lifer.
He almost had to be, considering his father was an integral part of the baseball leagues at Schautz Stadium in Dunmore and his mother ran the concession stand there.
But for all the time he put into the sport, starting as a five-year-old playing T-Ball, progressing to batboy at Schautz and bouncing around in a variety of assistant coaching roles at both Dunmore and Scranton Prep, he had never been a high school baseball head coach. That changed, as when longtime Riverside baseball coach Dan Digwood became the school’s athletic director last year, the Vikings gave Hallinan the reins of the baseball program.
It also created an interesting angle to Riverside’s games against Triboro rival Old Forge.
“I went from playing for Tony DiMattia to coaching against him,” said Hallinan, who played for the current Old Forge head coach for two years at Lackawanna College in 2000 and 2001.
That the Vikings beat the Blue Devils this year gave Hallinan a memory for a lifetime.
“I’ll look back at this senior class. When we beat Old Forge, to see how ecstatic the seniors were,” said Hallinan, a 1999 Dunmore grad who came to Riverside after a two-year stint as an assistant at his alma mater. “These kids were tough. You could see they were tired of losing.”
That was evident at early conditioning that started in January, when Hallinan first got to meet his new players. That was when he began to tackle his biggest concern of his first season in charge.
“I sat with Dan and talked about the positive and negatives,” Hallinan said. “But I had to see, for myself, what they had. I knew Riverside would swing the bats, but I’ve always been a defensive and pitch guy. My philosophy is to be aggressive, bunting, hit-and-run, but you can’t play your system if you don’t have the kids.”
Because of the harsh winter, Hallinan got to find out what system fit his players through months of work in the gym, discovering just how difficult the constant time indoors could be on his team.
“There’s only so much you can do in the gym from January to the end of March,” Hallinan said. “I had a young group, and it was hard to keep them hungry in the gym, doing the same drills day after day.”
Starting with that win over Old Forge, the Vikings posted a 5-9 Lackawanna League Division III record in Hallinan’s first year, and Hallinan felt he made strides with the program although he tends to have a harsh view of his own efforts.
“I think I was a C+, B- this year,” Hallinan said. “I’m my own worst critic, but I was humbled by the many coaches who told me what a good job I was doing with a young team. I think we prepared them well, but I think I can manage the game better. I have to learn, too.”
The one thing he thought might be a potential distraction did not come into play this year for Hallinan, who in his years as an assistant coach saw many instances of off-the-field pressures hamper a team’s season.
“As an assistant, I saw a lot of the day-to-day things that pop up with parents and their kid’s playing time,” Hallinan said. “I saw what they [head coaches] went through and how it taxed them, but we didn’t have that. No problems like that made the season go smoother.”
Despite managing just five wins, including a win over District 2 Class A top seed Lackawanna Trail, Hallinan sees a bright future for his program, knowing better times may be just around the corner. Having 13 returning players, including seven starters, Hallinan will tell those kids to see what Lakeland did this year.
“We split with Lakeland, and I think the kids were inspired by what they did,” said Hallinan, whose Vikings were seeded 11th, just behind 10th-seeded Lakeland, which went on to win the District 2 Class AA title to reach the state playoffs. “We’re not that far off.”
There will be a lot to do for next year, but Hallinan has set the cornerstone for the program he wants to create, a program he wants to leave his mark on. Based on the progress the Vikings have already made in his first year Hallinan seems to be on track for achieving his goals for the program.