LIBERTY, Ill. -- Each conversation Brigham John had individually with the Liberty baseball players revealed a common thread.
The Eagles had been told for years they had potential, and they were still holding onto that promise.
John wanted them to let it go.
"I finally told them, ‘Guys, that word potential is long gone,'" said John, who recently completed his first season as Liberty's head coach. "It's either you are or you aren't. You either have to start bringing it or wash your hands of it."
Over the final three weeks of the season, the Eagles finally lived up to their potential.
Liberty won eight straight games in May -- it began the month with a 9-9 record -- and went from being seeded sixth in a Class 1A sub-sectional to winning a regional championship and playing for a sectional title. It earned John the 2018 Herald-Whig Coach of the Year honor.
"We've always had that word potential over us ever since we started playing together," senior first baseman Dalton Lentz said. "When it comes down to it, especially in high school, you can't have that word potential hanging over your head. If you're good, you're good. If you're not, you're not.
"We knew we were good, so we wanted to put in the work to show we were as good as people thought we could be."
John knew it was possible from the day he took over.
Shortly after being hired last summer following five years coaching at Quincy High School, John reached out to his players to schedule an introductory meeting that coincided with some field maintenance. Attendance was high, and the work ethic was even better.
"Just to see the hard work they put in and the pride they had getting their field ready for fall ball, that was enough for me to say, ‘These guys want it,'" said John, who was the Eagles' third coach in the last four years. "You just knew it was going to be a good group to work with."
Still, there were hurdles to overcome.
While his assistants coached the team during its fall schedule, John watched from afar with keen interest. He was sizing up the Eagles' body language, baseball IQ and camaraderie more than he was their skill level.
"They didn't have that whole next pitch mentality," John said. "I saw them in a fall get down on themselves after an error. They'd come out there after a bad outing, a strikeout or whatever it may be and they couldn't clear that."
It wasn't so easy to do the first month of the spring season either.
The Eagles suffered four straight losses -- three by the 10-run rule -- and were sitting at 5-6 after getting swept in a doubleheader by Unity.
That's when John challenged them to rise above their potential.
"Coach emphasized with us seniors that someone, someday was going to be telling us that we're no longer going to be able to play baseball, whether that's after high school or college," Lentz said. "So this senior group, we got together and we were like, ‘We don't want to die early. We want to ride it out.'
"So we showed up to practice and got to the grind and put in the work day in and day out."
It was done to create an opportunity.
That chance came in the regional championship. Facing Central, the top-seeded team in the Class 1A Brown County Regional, the Eagles scored four runs in the top of the first inning and finished off a 14-4 victory in five innings.
It was the third regional championship in program history.
"That Saturday over in Brown County was pretty special," John said.
It creates an expectation for future Liberty teams to chase.
"Coach John is the type who wants to have a good program," Lentz said. "He knows how hard it was for us going through so many coaches, and he didn't want that for anyone. He wants to stick there and build up the program.
"It's going to be real fun to see what they can do sticking with one coach. It could be awesome."
It can be as long as the Eagles rise above their potential.
"That last month, they said, ‘It's now or never,'" John said. "They went and did it."
It helped having someone push them in the right direction.