Coaching on the varsity level is more often than not a difficult high-wire act trying to balance the rigors of leading a program along with those of sometimes assuming an additional job – whether it be as a teacher or an administrator or outside of the education realm.
Add to that the personal challenges of trying to guide and raise a young family, and the task of being a high-level sports leader can prove to be a daunting endeavor indeed.
For 14 incredible seasons, Seneca High School's Dan Stecken managed to toe that line with incredible success, grace, heart and professionalism, leading the softball Lady Irish to 321 victories in that time, four regional championships and four Class 2A Sweet Sixteen appearances before recently retiring from the coaching ranks, choosing to spend more time with his wife, Karie, 11 year-old daughter, Camryn, and six year-old son, Costner, as well as concentrating on his high-profile responsibilities as chief business officer of Seneca District 160.
Stecken saw his coaching tenure come to a close in 2019 after leading the Lady Irish to a 30-6 overall record before falling to Reed Custer 1-0 in the Seneca Class 2A Regional championship contest last month. He leaves the Lady Irish at the top of his coaching prowess, having amassed a whopping 91 wins and only 20 losses throughout the last three campaigns.
But the call to lead his family and the district ended up being one he would answer despite the love and affection he's had for the program he's built into one of the winningest in the state.
"It's bittersweet for sure, and I still know I had a lot more to accomplish as a coach, but this is something I knew had to happen," Stecken said. "This is a chance for me to spend much more time with my wife and kids, and they've been on the backburner over the years. It's one of those decisions you never want to make, but it's time for me to be a good dad and a good husband.
"Add to that, I missed many meetings in my administrative position this year, and Dr. (Jim) Carlson (District 160 superintendent) was great about it, but at the same time it was something I needed to do in that pursuit as well. It's one of those things where I've got to do a good job at home and in my office, so I knew it was time to hang it up coaching even though it was very tough to do so."
Stecken took over a struggling program in 2006 and started to build it into a perennial winner.
His first major success came in 2011, when Seneca softball captured its third regional title in school history after producing its first 30-win season, 30-9, with eventual NCAA Division I pitcher Nicole Pihl (DePaul University) leading the way.
"When we beat St. Bede for my first regional title that year, I think we had lost four regional championship games before that, and I was down on myself as a coach," Stecken said. "But with Nicole, Alanna Viken and Miranda Hougas as well as others, we finally got over the hump, and it was a great moment for me as a coach and our program."
The Lady Irish would add another regional crown under Stecken in 2012 as well as one more in 2017 before their best year ever in 2018 when Stecken and Seneca posted a school-record 33 wins against only four losses, falling to eventual 2A runner-up Beecher 3-2 in the 2A sectional title game after an intense battle.
"That was probably the toughest loss, losing to Beecher with maybe the best team I ever coached," Stecken said. "The reality is we should have beaten them, but it didn't work out that way and we never got to state with a lot of great teams throughout my coaching tenure.
"That elusive trip to state at East Peoria never materialized for us, but I'm so proud of what we accomplished over the years as a program and especially this season after another 30-win team coaching one last year with a guy like Don Brown who has been my varsity assistant all the way."
Seneca athletic director Steve Haines certainly concurs in terms of Stecken's softball legacy.
"Dan's passion for what he has done is unreal, and he took a program that hadn't been successful for years and now is one of the best softball programs in the area," Haines said. "He worked so hard for that, and he'll be sorely missed."
Stecken now turns the Lady Irish softball head coaching reigns over to Seneca 2004 graduate Brian Holman, who coached at Newark from 2012-14 and Spring Valley Hall most recently in 2015-19, winning singular softball regional championships along the way at both schools.
"Dan has made Seneca softball into a program people and coaches know as one of the most revered in the state, and I'm so proud to be taking over for him after what he's accomplished," Holman said. "He's put so much hard work into the program, and it's something I want to build upon, and hopefully we'll keep things going trying to succeed legendary coaches like himself and Coach Brown moving forward."