Fournier's rise to a tenured head baseball coach at a JUCO powerhouse

Wabash Valley College head baseball coach Rob Fournier (mid-right) talks with former Warriors Noah Myers and Brian Fuentes at third base. Fournier will be entering his 24th season as head skipper of the Warriors next season.

MOUNT CARMEL -- There have been a plethora of opportunities along the road for Wabash Valley College head baseball coach Rob Fournier. All of them though, since his arrival in Wabash Valley in 1996, Fournier has given the same answer -- no.

Fournier is the program's second-longest tenured coach, entering his 24th season on the job, trailing just long-time Lady Warriors head softball coach Paul Schnarre, who's completed 35 seasons on the job as the softball coach.

But evolving from a boy in California to becoming deep rooted in the Midwest, specifically Mount Carmel, Ill.? It's been a long and tremendous journey for the Warriors skipper.

Much as you could expect, Fournier played baseball growing up, but also played football and basketball. Growing up in Ojai, Calif., Fournier recalled that baseball was actually his least favorite sport of the three to play, citing his passion for basketball and football. In basketball, Fournier played as a point guard. In football, he played quarterback -- both serving a precursor for what would come in his future.

But just as everyone has to a pivotal decision following high school graduation, Fournier opted to continue his sports days in his least favorite to play -- baseball. Much to his knowledge, there's a limited market for 5-foot-10 point guards and quarterbacks at the next level.

Having made the decision to stick to one sport for his collegiate sporting career, Fournier began the process of selecting which college he'd choose to spend his next two years. That decision led him to a junior college on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Ventura Junior College.

Back in Fournier's playing days in the early 1990's, you had to be a swiss army knife per say to be successful, accustoming yourself to a variety of different roles and positions. For him, he resided as a speedy shortstop and a pitcher -- though he largely entered as a closing pitcher, boasting an arsenal of a changeup and a breaking ball as his put away pitches.

"Back then you had to be a really versatile player," Fournier said. "Your best athletes always played shortstop and I came into close. I got a good experience on the mound and played shortstop. I was blessed in the area of being able to run and throw and I always told everybody that if I could hit a little better I'd still have been playing, but I couldn't hit well enough to help me down the road. Shortstop was what I loved to do and I loved to come in and close as a pitcher."

His next chapter strayed him away from all he ever knew in California. He packed his bags, got on a plane and flew all the way out to MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill.

Fournier completed his collegiate baseball career at MacMurray, spending his final two years of eligibility in Jacksonville. What would he do following graduation? For Fournier, it was a no-brainer, he'd continue a career in baseball.

He continued to pursue a career as a coach, but also got involved in scouting. Fournier met a scout for the Cleveland Indians at a game at Gibson Southern High School, they hit it off, and Fournier began to contribute for the Indians shortly after, scouting the Midwest, specifically southern Illinois for the Cleveland Indians and (eventually would for) the Philadelphia Phillies.

"I got to know him because he scouted, he was a full-time scout in this area," Fournier said. "He saw me at a game, this was actually down in Princeton, Ind. at Gibson Southern High School, where he was scouting a few players down there. I just went up and introduced myself, I just wanted to ask him about a few of their players and I wasn't afraid to go up and talk to people. That was something I learned early on in my coaching career, you have to get out there, network and try to meet people, you can't be shy in this profession.

Fresh out of college, he was pursuing his coaching career on top of his scouting ventures, and his alma mater, MacMurray, offered Fournier a graduate assistant position on their staff -- which he accepted. He'd remain a member of the Highlander coaching staff for around a year and a half prior to exploring for greener pastures.

He was offered a part-time, volunteer based role to return to Ventura -- which he was set to accept and return to California -- but fate came calling. Wabash Valley College touched base with Fournier prior to moving and offered him an assistant coaching position. Unlike at Ventura, Fournier would be allotted a tremendous amount of responsibility, including recruiting and an actual role as an assistant. Such a challenge would be an incredible opportunity and came with such impeccable timing. He interviewed with the then AD, Schnarre, who served in that capacity from 1976-2003, and the rest was history.

"The opportunity and responsibilities were a lot more challenging here at the time so I was all in." Fournier recalled.

Shortly after his arrival, Fournier's superior (and soon to be predecessor), left Wabash Valley, leaving the position of head baseball coach vacant. Immediately intrigued by the possibility, Fournier tossed his name into the ring for the position, feeling as if he were the best candidate to be the next ambassador of the Wabash Valley College baseball program. Schnarre concurred with Fournier, anointing him as the next baseball coach. Little did they know at the time, that pairing would be an exceptional long-term fit for both parties.

As the new head coach, Fournier made quick work in turning around the program. He took the reigns in 1996 and turned around a team which was 12-34 in 1996 to a 37-16 mark in 1996 -- a 25-win difference in just one season.

"The first year, just inheriting a team that was 12-34, a lot of dysfunction," Fournier spoke of his first season as the Warriors' skipper. "Trying to get them connected, get through the year and do what we did that year, I believe we finished second in the conference that year, a really good conference. It was really fun to watch and it really motivated me to, wow, we can really do something special here by just having players that want to buy in because we didn't have that much talent that year at all. That was when it's like, I really like what I'm doing here because I think this is fun."

It wasn't all easy and smooth sailing though. Fournier encountered his hurdles along the way, including being a 23-year-old trying to coach 20-year-old young men. Sure, it can be a good thing. You have a level of relatability with your players, especially when you've gone through the JUCO route yourself, but there's also some negative. He quickly had to define the distinction of the coach-player relationship. Even though they had so much in common and developed tremendous chemistry as a unit, they had to let Fournier do his job and make the tough calls.

"We hit it off fresh from the get go, but it was like I have to make that adjustment and not make it where it was so crazy of an adjustment, where players see the difference," Fournier spoke of coaching players at such a young age. "I still had to be who I was, they had to respect what I was doing. It was a great learning experience for me at the time. I knew if I wanted to coach and be successful i had to do that, that's the hardest part when you're a young coach."

With that relationship defined, Fournier remained in Wabash Valley. Year, after year. He became rooted here, met his wife, who's from Fort Branch, Ind., and started his family in Mount Carmel, while expanding the Wabash Valley College brand. Ironically, he met his wife at a baseball function, after a friend of his who he calls Swift introduced the pair.

"He kind of set it up in his own little way," Fournier laughed. "It's a lot of fun that way, he always tells that story. He set it up but we kind of met at a random baseball outing -- a baseball function I should say -- then the rest is history from there."

Since taking the reigns of the program, the improvements followed. Facility improvements, personnel improvements, conference crowns, awards, and of course a constant piling of wins. He's a seven-time recipient of the Great Rivers Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Award, along with his teams claiming 11 GRAC titles in his tenure. Most recently his team finished third in the College World Series in 2017.

His favorite part of coaching his 22 plus teams though? The work they get in with no one watching -- practice. If you're a coach and don't enjoy practice, it can be an unfriendly, monotonous path.

"When we just get to practice and watch our guys develop, watch them make adjustments and get better," Fournier said. "That for whatever reason just drives me everyday to become a better coach. I love watching our guys learn and it all happens in practice. That's my sanctuary I should say, when practice starts. The games are awesome, but they go so fast and sometimes you don't get to enjoy them, practice is where it all happens. That's what I love to do and that's why I feel like I'm still coaching to this day."

Just as important as their athletic success is, Fournier harps on the importance of devotion in the classroom to his players. It becomes almost cliche for coaches to preach the importance of academics in this day and era and not produce results, but Fournier's importance of academics is realized at the end of the season when the NJCAA announces Academic All-Americans.

His team had a total of nine student-athletes named to the three Academic All-American teams in 2019 -- so whatever he's doing to get players to buy in to academics, it's working. This evidence isn't left unnoticed either. Parents pay close attention to academics when inquiring into their child's college choices. This, as equally as the on the field success, helps the Wabash Valley College brand continue on.

"That has to be the utmost importance because at the end of the day when you're sitting down with parents in your office, in regards to their son playing ball and making a decision, they want to know if they're going to be at the right place," Fournier spoke of their academic success. "They come here for several reasons, but one of the reasons is to move onto a good four-year school. That has to be an important thing. A lot of people talk about it, but that has to be the number one thing, they get through and graduate. . . . We have a lot of pride in doing that and that's why we have a really good recruiting class every year, because when we sit down with parents and go over the whole program and talk about that, that's ultimately what matters."

Coupled with his teams' tremendous success in both the classroom and on the field, Fournier's enjoyed a countless amount of great memories and stories of incredible player development. This season alone there were several. The development of Noah Myers, a kid from Ontario who the staff took as one of their last recruits. No one expected Myers to make the impact he did, becoming a starter from day one, earning national prominence, getting drafted and now heading to the University of South Carolina.

Then there's a story like Cael Baker. Baker left the University of Cincinnati and didn't know where to look despite an incredibly accomplished high school career. His future teammate, Sam Wilson, grew up playing baseball with Baker and bridged the connection between Fournier and Baker to make it happen. Since his arrival in Wabash Valley, Baker thrived, earning NJCAA Division I Baseball Player of the Year honors, earning the Triple Crown, and captivating power five schools across the nation to his incredible success. Now, Baker's set to attend the University of Mississippi.

So many to name, Antoine Kelly Jr., a flamethrowing second round draft choice by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 MLB Draft, Mel Rojas Jr., a young man who Fournier recalls no one would take, but Wabash Valley welcomed with open arms and helped Rojas reach his MLB dreams in his father's footsteps as another second round MLB Draft selection. An abundance of dreams realized, so many ambassadors to the program, exemplifying what Wabash Valley College is all about -- helping you reach your goals.

"There's so many great memories," Fournier said. "Some of the great memories, obviously going to the World Series is one of the reasons that it drives us -- even moreso when you get out there, it's such a special time that it drives you even harder the next year and that was obviously going to be one of the most special times ever. . . . There's been so many [great stories], but just like this last year, we had so many unbelievable stories. . . . There's so many players I can't even mention, it'd take me a long time. Those guys are [ones] that stick out immediately."

Some of the aforementioned stories, coupled of course with his family being settled here, are part of what helps keep Fournier in Wabash Valley. It's hard to put a label on how many more years Fournier wants to continue in Wabash Valley, but he's pieced together a top-tier program in Division I and helped put WVC on the map in Division I baseball in the meantime. He was highly complimentary of his staff, Aaron Biddle, Christian Frias, and Donald Brais, each of whom help make the program function and elevate WVC to its powerhouse status.

For now though, Fournier's thrilled to be in Wabash Valley, entering his 24th season next spring. With a job he loves and his family beside him, he begged the question, what more could he ask for?

"I do love junior college. I love everything about what we can do. I think we're able to spend more time with our players. It's challenging every year that we recruit from all different walks of life. . . . when you're committed it's really hard to leave. There's been some opportunities, the grass is always greener, but I love what we do here. . . . We're blessed here at Wabash Valley, we have a very special program here in athletics, with what the administration does for us and gives us the opportunity. My family's here and obviously that's incredibly important. When you get to have your family close and you get to do what you love to do for a living, I think that's all you can ask for in life."

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