Hometown Report

Elk Grove's Jeff Carlson, the section's greatest baseball coach, is stepping down

Jeff Carlson, right, won nine Sac-Joaquin Section baseball championships at Elk Grove, including three with son Dylan, left, a first-round pick in 2016 to St. Louis.
Jeff Carlson, right, won nine Sac-Joaquin Section baseball championships at Elk Grove, including three with son Dylan, left, a first-round pick in 2016 to St. Louis. Sacramento Bee file

On the fridge in an Elk Grove home, a magnet describes the Carlson family dynamic.

"We interrupt this marriage to bring you baseball season."

The seasons will continue, but a fixture for Elk Grove High School will not.

Jeff Carlson, a no-nonsense, barrel-chested sort with bouncer arms, has stepped down as the Thundering Herd coach to spend time with his wife of 20 years, Caryn, closing one of the storied coaching runs in regional history.

To take it a step further: Carlson is the best baseball coach in Sac-Joaquin Section history. There's no debate in terms of victories at the highest level. Carlson expertly used a mix of structure, offensive creativity and cohesion to mold a dynasty.

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Carlson in 18 years won 450 games, 14 league championships, 10 Division I-North banners and eight section titles. He coached a number of players who earned baseball scholarships and/or got drafted, including son Dylan, a first-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals two years ago.

Another former Herd star, J.D. Davis, has been a terror for Triple-A Fresno and has had two stints with the Houston Astros. And there's Nick Madrigal, the dynamo infielder who became the region's highest-drafted player, going fourth overall last month to the Chicago White Sox after an All-America career at Oregon State.

"A lot of what I learned, how to play, how to compete, I learned for coach Carlson," Madrigal said.

The Carlson summer plans include plenty of baseball: watching sons Dylan and Tanner, a recent Elk Grove graduate and two-time All-Metro infielder who will play at Long Beach State next spring.

Having grown up watching his father, Jeff, coach Elk Grove High School's baseball team, Dylan Carlson is now the leader of one of the area's strongest baseball programs. On Monday, May 2, 2016, Carlson talked about the years growing with the team

Carlson's coaching replacement is longtime assistant Joe Bellotti. Carlson said he will likely help coach defense for Elk Grove football at the urging of head coach John Heffernan. Carlson as a head, co-head coach or assistant won several football championships at Elk Grove, including teams that went 12-1 twice, 12-2 twice and 13-1 once.

"It's just time," Carlson said of the decision to step away from baseball. "I'll get time to see our boys play, and with everyone out of the house, I'll be here for Caryn more than before as she continues rehab and to get better. I need to be with her."

Caryn is a breast cancer survivor who five years ago woke up partially paralyzed, the result of transverse myelitis, an inflammatory disorder that affects the spinal cord. She remains in a wheelchair but scowls if anyone offers an ounce of pity.

Carlson calls Caryn, "my rock, my inspiration, my hero" for what she has endured. Always radiating good cheer, Caryn has never let her physical ailments damper a mood.

It was common for Elk Grove to win championships and for her sons to hustle over to hug Caryn and then wheel her out to the parking lot.

"I feel lucky to have her in my life, such a great coach's wife and person," Carlson said. "She's a great example for our boys and anyone in terms of strength and courage."

Caryn also provided zingers. She told me once about a deal she made with her husband, who was known to chew on umpires: Don't get tossed. Said Caryn, "What do you give up for Lent? Well, I didn't want to take away beer or the TV remote, because then you have a grumpy husband, and who wants that? So this works great. I think the umpires are still baffled."

Caryn was also quick to take credit when one of her sons made a big play, which was often, blurting, "That's my boy!" When a son made a rare mistake, she'd say, "That's coach Carlson's son!"

Carlson reveled in the pressure cooker of expectations at Elk Grove. He fed into it with ambitious scheduling and aggressive coaching tactics, always pushing the needle. Still, he never expected to win like this, including two section three-peats, which just doesn't happen in this section for any sport at the D-I level.

"I never would have imagined we would have this sort of success," Carlson said. "I've been so fortunate to have such a great coaching staff, great players and support."

These players worked their way up from their roots in the Sacramento area to play in the majors. Here's a look at who is where on MLB rosters for the 2018 season. Photos by The Associated Press.

It took a painful loss in Carlson's first section title game appearance in 2002 to put things in perspective. He wondered if Elk Grove would ever make it back to a final. The Herd made it routine.

"Not a lot of things bother me, and I really never bring baseball home with me, but that was the one time I felt I got outcoached," Carlson said. "I couldn't sleep it bothered me so much. I don't know if we'll ever get another chance. I learned that if we do things the right way, play hard, buy in, get the best possible coaches around you that good things will happen."

Guy Anderson can relate to pressure. He coached the famed Cordova Lancers baseball dynasty of a generation ago, including winning three D-I titles in four years in the early 1980s. He was the best coach with the best players, much like Carlson this era.

"Carly is absolutely a great champion and a great person as well," said Anderson, now an assistant at Capital Christian. "He won at the highest level of high school ball – Division I. I've followed Jeff his whole career. He played against me when he was at Christian Brothers, went to my alma mater at Chico State and became a fine, fine coach."

Carlson was a Bee All-Metro third baseman and an All-Metro linebacker for Christian Brothers in the mid-1980s. He got the coaching itch from his father, Jim, a fixture with Parkway Little League in South Sacramento in the 1970s and 80s.

Jim ensured the baseball fields were manicured, doing the job himself. The nuns at Saint Charles Borromeo, Jeff Carlson once recalled, "would take him a beer while he mowed, and he wasn't even Catholic. True story. They had his Olympia beer on ice for him."

Jim died in 1995 from cancer. He never got to meet Caryn or the sons, or to see his son achieve so much at Elk Grove, though Carlson said he feels him every day.

"What I learned, how to do all of this, I got it from my dad," Carlson said. "He taught me a lot. I was lucky to have a dad so involved, to teach me how to do to do things the right way."

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