Joe Wilkins doesn’t take for granted how much of an impact he’s capable of having as coach of the Tiffin University baseball team.
He learned that fact firsthand during one of the toughest moments of his athletic career.
A three-year starter for the Dublin Scioto High School baseball and football teams, Wilkins played quarterback in 1995 when the Irish won the Division II state championship in their inaugural season.
He also was a standout catcher and the No. 2 pitcher for the Scioto baseball team as a senior in 1998 when he was called upon to start on the mound in the Division I state championship game.
The Irish lost that game, falling 6-3 to Lakewood St. Edward at Ohio State’s Bill Davis Stadium, with Wilkins allowing a triple and a two-run home run during the Eagles’ four-run third inning.
He vividly recalls what took place that day during a visit to the mound by then-coach Phil Callaghan.
“It wasn’t the greatest day of my career, but I’ll never forget the way he handled it,” Wilkins said. “Coach Callaghan came out to the mound and pulled me down to earth and centered me, just reeling me back in. From a coaching standpoint, you do have an effect on your players.”
Wilkins pitched a complete game in a 4-3 win over Celina in a regional final that season, helping Scioto finish 31-3.
He’s had numerous winning experiences in the sport since then, with his most recent coming this spring in his fifth season as Tiffin’s coach.
The Dragons turned in their greatest season, finishing a program-best 32-22, and reaching the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship game for the first time, where they lost to Northwood 8-4.
In addition, their third-place finish in the GLIAC’s regular-season standings represented a program best.
Tiffin’s roster included 10 players from central Ohio in Brayden Callihan (Gahanna), Devon Fisk (Pickerington Central), Steven Gonzalez (Westland), Nick Green (Big Walnut), Kyle Lento (Dublin Jerome), Cole Maxwell (Utica), Alec McMurry (Olentangy Orange), Kyle Montell (Pickerington North), Connor Richardson (Reynoldsburg) and Nick Whetnall (Pickerington North).
Tiffin, which had hopes of making the NCAA Division II regional this spring but wasn’t selected, qualified for the GLIAC tournament for the first time in 2012 during its final season under coach Lonny Allen, who won 444 games in 21 seasons.
Wilkins was an assistant under Allen in 2006, ’07, ’11 and ’12 before taking over as coach in 2013.
The Dragons finished 20-29 in 2013, 17-33 in 2014, 19-31 in 2015 and 21-29 in 2016.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Wilkins, who picked up his 100th career win with a 7-5 victory over Ashland on April 23. “Tiffin’s a great place to play and a great place to go to school. It’s a neat little place. We’ve gotten a little better every year, building on what the previous teams built, and we’re hoping to continue that. When the opportunity to be the head coach presented itself, I jumped on it and the rest is history.”
Wilkins followed his standout high school career by earning four letters as a catcher at Ohio State. He made second-team all-Big Ten Conference and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten tournament as a senior in 2002 and also helped the Buckeyes win two Big Ten regular-season titles.
Ohio State made three NCAA tournament appearances with Wilkins on its roster, including in 1999 when it advanced to the Super Regional.
Although he wasn’t drafted, Wilkins signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in June 2002 and played for the short-season Yakima (Washington) Bears of the Northwest League that summer.
He concluded his minor league career in 2003 by splitting time between the Class-A South Bend (Indiana) Silver Hawks and the Class-A Advanced Lancaster (California) JetHawks.
After returning to Ohio State in 2005 to earn a degree in human ecology with a specialization in consumer affairs, Wilkins got his masters degree in business administration from Tiffin in 2007.
He also coached in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League in 2006 and ’07, was the full-time catching instructor for Florida-based IMG Academies in 2008, coached catchers at Wake Forest in 2009 and was an assistant at Pepperdine in 2010 before returning to Tiffin.
Callaghan knew he had a special person to work with shortly after Wilkins moved into the school district in 1995.
“By the time Joe was a senior, he was my No. 2 pitcher, and he caught every game he didn’t pitch,” said Callaghan, who coached DeSales to a 207-74 record from 1986-95, Scioto to a 253-66 mark from 1996-2006 and has been Olentangy Orange’s coach since 2011. “When we got the regional (title), there’d only been one pitch that touched the screen with him catching. For someone like Joe, he’d given everything to the game so there were a lot of emotions (during the state final).
“As a player, he was quiet and went after it hard. He’s a little more fiery as a speaker and a manager when he speaks at clinics now. He’s just a great competitor.”
Wilkins, whose wife, Vickie, is Tiffin’s director of alumni relations, hopes the Dragons continue taking steps forward.
He’s got more than a few stories to tell when he brings in new classes of players in the coming years.
“(The stories) I share are the ones where I hung out with a manager or sat in front of a bus and listened, picking up things along the way,” Wilkins said. “Basically, it’s all about bringing in the next class and the one after that. It’s a lot easier when you have good players. We’re looking for the best players we can get and guys that can run because you can move them to different places if you need to. I knew the group we had this year was pretty special.”