The passion to teach baseball to Wichita’s youth still burns inside John Dreifort, who at age 76 led Wichita 316 Elite into the National Baseball Congress World Series as its head coach this week at Eck Stadium.
Dreifort has been coaching youth baseball in Wichita for four decades now. It started when his two sons — Todd, an All-American at Wichita State, and Darren, a WSU standout and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher — were children.
“Then when they graduated, another team came along and then another team came along and another team came along,” John Dreifort said.
That endless cycle has led him to coaching this group of recent graduates from Wichita-area high schools such as Bishop Carroll (Carson Pracht, Cale Blasi, Jack Ebright and Logan Stockemer), Northwest (Tyler Hicks), Maize (Deriq Doty), Maize South (Alex Epp), Derby (Weston Murrow), Campus (Corey Hahn and Cayden Ysidro), Arkansas City (Brice Nittler), Hesston (Cameron Cox), Clearwater (Corbin Lill) and Flinthills (Dylan Steinhauer).
Some of the players Dreifort has been coaching since they started in tee ball. Most of the group have been playing together for the last decade.
The gratification of seeing players develop and improve over the years is part of the addiction for Dreifort.
“The ability to teach the game and see them continue to get better over the years,” Dreifort said. “They all know each other. They’re all friends, so that makes them easy to coach. Over the years, they’ve learned my expectations and I’ve learned their abilities.
“It’s been a fun ride because this is such a good group of parents who are really good people and that’s why the players are good because the parents are good. They’re the kind of kids that you want to see succeed.”
Around the area, Dreifort’s knowledge and experience in baseball is unmatched. The players view him as a well of knowledge because he not only played the game, but also has 40-plus years of coaching experience and even served as an agent for when his son Darren negotiated his rookie contract with the Dodgers.
On top of that, Dreifort has published a book about baseball and teaches a class called “The History of Baseball” each spring at WSU.
“Almost every single game we learn something new from any certain situation,” said Pracht, a shortstop headed to Barton Community College. “(Dreifort) will pick something out and teach us about it, so it’s like every single game is a learning experience for us.”
His devotion and commitment to the same group of players over the years has also endeared him to the players.
“It’s been awesome having him as a coach all these years,” said Stockemer, an outfielder signed with Oklahoma State. “I guess you could say he’s like our grandpa. He’s not just a coach. But he knows so much about baseball and his teams have always been good over the years, so you know that has something to do with his coaching. Coming in I was expecting a lot from him and he’s come through.”
This summer has been the pay-off for 316 Elite, as they finished with a 38-7-1 record and reached bracket play of the first week of the NBC World Series, despite a roster of 18-year-olds competing against college sophomores and juniors. Their run ended in a 5-2 loss to the Derby Twins on Tuesday evening.
The competitive juices are still there for Dreifort, but he’s learned over the years to take more from baseball than just the wins and losses. He still experiences a thrill of seeing his team, the youngest in the NBC World Series field, compete and beat older teams.
But his message to his players over the years has never changed.
“I always try to remind my guys that there’s a life after baseball,” Dreifort said. “You have to take care of your academics because when baseball comes to an end, you have to be prepared to move on in life. All of these kids are great students and they will be credits to their universities, their communities and their families when they get older.”
So what comes next for Dreifort when this group finishes its run in the NBC World Series?
“My wife (Carol) has been so supportive over the years and she kids me sometimes, ‘Either you retire or it’s divorce court,’ I always tell her, ‘Well, let me think about it,’” Dreifort jokes. “She doesn’t find that too funny.”
At age 76, Dreifort says he doesn’t feel like he’s slowing down.
He’s not ruling out the possibility of another group coming along that he will want to mentor.
“You never know, there’s some people who have asked me to take on some other players,” Dreifort said. “If the situation is right and if I have the time and my family allows me to do it, then that’s great. I’ve been blessed with a very supportive wife and she enjoys the games and enjoys the kids and has been a huge help over the years. We’ll just have to see what comes along.”