NAPPANEE -- Zach Benko looks at the future of NorthWood High School baseball and has at least three things on his wish list.
The Panthers' new head coach wants to build "program baseball" in Wa-Nee Community Schools.
Benko would like to see NorthWood play a competitive non-conference schedule, a strategy he saw work at his alma mater.
On the field, the 24-year-old wants the Panthers to be able to play "small ball" and pitch well in order to earn victories.
Benko, who takes over as head coach following the resignation of Nick Davis, wants to have all the baseball players in Wakarusa and Nappanee -- from youth leagues on up -- on the same page.
"We want to make sure we are all teaching the same things from an early stage. We want to be consistent," said Benko. "That way, by the time they get to high school, we don't have to spend as much time on the little things.
"We're building a program instead of just a team."
Benko is a 2004 graduate of Blissfield High School in southeast lower Michigan. The Royals won Class C state championships his sophomore and junior years and he was an all-state catcher. In each of the title years, Blissfield beat the eventual Class A and Class B champions on the weekends.
Leaving the final say to athletic director Norm Sellers, Benko would like to play strong programs outside the always-tough Northern Lakes Conference to further get the Panthers ready for the Class 3A state tournament run.
Benko has a game day philosophy of manufacturing runs.
"We'll want strong pitching and play for a run an inning," said Benko. "If you get seven runs, you should win that game."
Benko and wife Jessica, from the Chicago area, have been busy this week buying a house in Wakarusa. They did have time to go to Chicago Sunday night where they saw the near double no-hitter as Ted Lilly of the Cubs outdueled Gavin Floyd of the White Sox.
Which team was drawing cheers from the Benkos?
A hint: The couple own a Wheaten Terrier named Wrigley.
"I'm a Cubs fan and she is by default," said Benko.
A 2008 graduate of Albion (Mich.) College, Benko was a catcher his first two collegiate seasons and a first baseman his last two.
After doing his student teaching and serving as head junior varsity baseball coach at Jackson (Mich.) Northwest High School, Benko was hired at NorthWood. He taught English and was an assistant JV coach to Dave Marvin in baseball in 2009-10. He is scheduled to teach English and health in 2010-11.
Benko was a tight end for the Albion football team and he helped coach receivers and linebackers on head coach Scott Hoover's NorthWood staff last fall. He will be on the offensive side of the ball again in 2010.