Stu Clary looks like a bouncer at a motorcycle club: formidable and fierce.
He’s a barrel-chested, thick-bodied sort. He sports a handle-bar mustache, robust and gray, that covers a snarling game face.
But there’s something else striking about the Vacaville High School baseball coach.
He’s a softie. Sometimes he giggles.
Just ask his players. Or listen to him talk about what sports can do to a kid, or an adult, or a coach, and what it all means to a homegrown guy coaching a batch of homegrown kids basking in the time of their lives.
“Aw man, I’m choked up right now just thinking about that,” soft-side Clary said Thursday night after witnessing another milestone moment for a program full of them the past two seasons, a walk-off victory over Jesuit in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoff game at Sacramento City College.
“Our kids grew up playing Little League together, riding their bikes to each other’s houses. We’re just a bunch of kids from the north side of Vacaville doing our thing, and this is special. We have second- and third- and fourth-generation Vacaville students here. It means something to all of us.”
Here’s a sampling: “There’s a parade on Saturday in Vacaville, the annual Fiesta Days, and we’re going to be in that parade,” Clary said. “People will show their love, and we’re going to show it back. It’s a big family thing, and I’ve got a lump in my throat talking about.”
Here’s what else Clary basks in: success.
Under Clary’s watch, the Bulldogs have soared the last two years, storming the section large-school field with all the subtlety of a forearm to the face. The Bulldogs roster is dotted with college-bound players. Some are on the MLB draft radar.
The tournament has long been dominated by Davis, Elk Grove, Franklin and Jesuit. But the last two seasons there’s an indelible block V stamp on it, like the one emblazoned on Vacaville playing gear. The top seed and defending champion, Vacaville moved to 30-2 after defeating second-seeded Jesuit 4-3 when Adam Chadwick scored Devereaux Harrison with last-inning heroics Wednesday.
That snapped Jesuit’s 10-game winning streak and sent the Bulldogs into Monday’s championship game.
Clary is 56 years old but has the spirit of the kids he coaches. He is a 1982 Vacaville graduate, a self-confessed “bench warmer” in his day, but a lad who soaked in all things sporty and felt obligated to give back to a town and school that gave him so much.
Clary is in his second career as a special education instructor and coach at Vacaville, the first being 20-year veteran in the town’s recreation department. He’s all about kids.
“I’ve been a public servant my whole life, and there’s a lot of intrinsic value to it,” Clary said. “I love the town, and it loves us all back.”
Clary has the attention of his players. He is their coach, who later will become their lifelong friend.
“Coach is the best,” said Harrison, the team’s pitcher/outfielder star headed to Long Beach State. “He does everything right. We won the championship last year over Davis on a bunt. He’s a genius! We love him.”
There’s a motto and mantra that Clary preaches to his players.
“It’s, ‘Make your school proud,’” Harrison said. “That’s the most important thing, more than winning games, really.”
Added Clary, “We try to do the right thing, and that’s acting right, playing the right way, being respectful. We have to shut down the F-bombs sometimes during games, but they’re 17 year-old kids, so we need to reel them in. But make the school proud by shaking hands, looking people in the eye, supporting each other, being good citizens.”
Clary is surrounded by an army of assistant coaches who were once Vacaville Bulldogs, including son Goride. It’s a school and a Solano County town that is hard to leave. Vacaville baseball is now as deeply rooted on campus as the storied football and wrestling programs.
Harrison and college-bound teammates such as first baseman slugger Michael Brown (a national recruit), shortstop Hunter Dorraugh (Sacramento State), infielder Brian McClellin (Cal) and outfielders Jared Breedwell (Oregon State) and Kenny DeCelle (Santa Clara) have played ball together since they were in middle school, some longer.
Each has helped coach and mentor youth players in Vacaville, nurturing the next wave of Bulldogs. The town has three Little League programs, and a Pony League. Baseball is a big deal. Kids have played competitive ball since they were 9. They live for this.
“Kids look up to us,” Harrison said. “We’re role models.”
Clary wowed the D-I playoff field last season by going 6-1 as the No. 7 seed, eliminating Elk Grove, Franklin, Jesuit and Davis, going against conventional baseball coaching wisdom by pushing the odds.
Clary doesn’t view rival programs as the enemy but rather co-ambassadors of the game. He has become friends with coaches, including Jesuit’s Joe Potulny. They have dined before playoff football games, to talk shop, to enjoy good company, to discuss the joys and pressure of coaching your alma mater. Potulny has won five section titles at Jesuit.
“Stu loves his guys,” Potulny said. “He doesn’t put pressure on himself, his staff or his team as they have ascended to new heights. Last night, in the fourth or fifth inning, as he was passing by our dugout on his way to coach third base, we looked at each other, and I think my reaction mirrored his – deep exhale and a smile punctuated with, ‘Need to get a club sandwich together!’
“His teams emulate (his cool). They are loose but also aggressive, fearless, and they play the game hard. If they were tight, they would have fallen during that playoff string last year. It’s no mistake who they are this year.”
Vacaville is a win away from making its school even more proud, a repeat dog-pile on the pitcher’s mound. But a loss would not be the end of their world. It’s just a game, Clary stresses.
“We’re on to something legendary, and it’s not lost on anyone here, and all the players know it,” Clary said. “We want to enjoy it.”