1000+ wins

ST. JOSEPH — Randy Wolken was taken aback.
He was interviewing for the boys’ basketball head coaching job at St. Joseph-Ogden in 1979 when principal Bob Yeazel told him that in order to win the job, Wolken would also have to become the head coach of the school’s new softball team.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve never coached girls, I’m really not interested in doing that,’” Wolken said. “He said, ‘OK, I guess you really don’t want the basketball job.’ I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s back up a little bit. Are you saying the person that takes the position actually has to take softball?’
‘”I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Yep, I’ll do that then.’ I didn’t know what to expect.”
Thirty-eight years, 997 wins, five state trophies and one state title later, Wolken is the winningest softball coach in Illinois high school history as he chases his 1,000th win.
Back in 1979, though, he knew little about the sport aside from the fact he played baseball in high school. But if he was going to take the job, he decided, he wanted to go in full bore.
So he researched his new craft.
The early 1980s saw the advent of slap hitting, a strategy used in college softball and California at the time, but one that wasn’t as common in Illinois. Wolken instituted the practice quickly.
“When I first started putting slapping in, moving girls from right hand to left hand, a lot of the parents fought me,” he said. “It didn’t look pretty, a girl hitting a ground ball and beat them out at first base. I said, ‘Yeah, then we’re going to steal second and we’re going to score.’
“It took a little convincing to do that, but once I had a girl slapper have 15 hits in a row because the shortstop played back and she didn’t know any different.”

Learning on the job
For his first two seasons on the job, the Spartans played an abbreviated season in the spring. His third year, in 1982, they jumped into a full season. When the Spartans arrived at their 16-team regional in a one-class system, Wolken didn’t know what to expect.
“We were kind of unknown,” Wolken said. “I thought we had some good, fundamentally sound players and a good pitcher.”
Greg Knott, current Parkland College trustee and former manager and scorekeeper for Wolken’s teams, told Wolken, “You won’t lose a regional for a long time if you win this year.”
Knott was right. The Spartans beat top-seeded Rantoul, then Champaign Central and Danville to take the regional crown. Wolken’s teams didn’t lose a regional until 2000, and they’ve only failed to win a regional title twice in his 38 years.
“He just got to the point where it became his passion, and he really loved it and he wanted to get better at it all the time,” said Wolken’s wife, Lana. “He’s always wanted to play tougher teams as he’s gone along to get better. He’s got this way of earning the respect of the girls year after year after year, on the field and off the field. It’s remarkable. It’s hard to gain the respect of 25 girls each year, but I think they know what he’s talking about.”
As Wolken meticulously learned the game, so did his players. He made sure they were sliding well and throwing in the correct manner. Early on, he simply let his pitchers throw as hard as they could directly down the middle of the plate. Now, he calls nearly every pitch, a mix of different pitches and locations.
Wolken goes to multiple college practices and coaching clinics every year, and his philosophies have evolved. His teams recently began charging groundballs to receive them on the short-hop before bringing the ball into their bodies. He’s adjusted from having his players bunt and slap constantly to hitting in the gaps and out of the park as much as possible.

Family ties
Throughout the years, success has born success — literally.
After her mother, Nicki, played catcher under Wolken, Alabama commit Bailey Dowling took the field for the Spartans as a freshman this year. Senior first baseman Katelyn Burch is the daughter of former pitcher Debbie Burch, who led the Spartans to their first state appearance in 1985.
With all of his evolution, Debbie Burch said some aspects of the SJO program remain constant.
“Some things are completely the same,” she said. “Sometimes it’s an eye-roll or he turns in a circle at third, and you said, ‘I know I need to step up my game.’ He still tries to instill confidence in each girl and gives them the compliments when they need it and is tough on them when they need it as well.”
Now, kids grow up hoping to play for Wolken, and softball is a staple of the community.
“When I was in school, I didn’t even know we had a softball team,” said Gayle Frerichs, who played basketball for Wolken early in his coaching career and whose daughter, Logan, is a senior softball player. “It’s pretty unique to have a hometown guy. The community knows him, and he knows everybody in the community. You watch him walk into the restaurant and people go, ‘Hey, way to go. When’s the next tough game?’ It really adds a lot to the community.”
Frerichs and Burch both have younger daughters approaching high school, and they both say they hope Wolken is around to coach them.
They may get their wish. Wolken is retired from teaching, but he says coaching makes him feel physically good. Furthermore, he has a talented group of young players on this year’s team, with more talent coming from the younger levels.
When he’s out and around the community, Wolken is constantly asked how much longer he’ll consider coaching, and he always has the same answer.”
“The pipeline is there,” he said. “As long as I keep enjoying it, I’m going to keep doing it. I don’t see an end in sight.”

April 4
St. Joseph-Ogden 9, Monticello 0. The visiting Spartans prevailed in Okaw Valley Conference play thanks to a four-hit shutout from Tori Witruk, who struck out three Sages (5-5-1), and four RBI from Katelyn Burch (2 for 4), who provided a bases-clearing double in the fifth inning to give the Spartans (9-0) a 6-0 lead.

April 11
St. Joseph-Ogden 24, St. Thomas More 0. Emmy Graver compiled three hits, including a home run, and drove in seven runs to lead the Spartans (11-0) to a road OVC win in five innings. Allie Place also added a home run, while Ashtyn Cromwell and Hannah Lewis combined on a no-hitter against the Sabers (0-6).

April 12
St. Joseph-Ogden 3, Bishop McNamara 2. Following an intentional walk to Bailey Dowling with two outs in the top of the seventh inning and no one on base, Andrea Coursey’s double drove in the tie-breaking edge as the Spartans (12-0) edged state-ranked and previously unbeaten McNamara. Dowling, Emmy Graver and Hannah Dukeman all swatted two hits for SJ-O and Zoey Witruk (7-0) limited the home team to five hits.

April 14
Mattoon Tournament
Spartans win title. St. Joseph-Ogden kept its perfect record intact with two wins, defeating Bloomington 6-1 in its first game before knocking off Normal West 2-0 in the title game. Hannah Dukeman and Bailey Dowling each had two hits and an RBI for the Spartans (14-0) in their win against Bloomington. Zoey Witruk threw a two-hit shutout in the win against Normal West, while Dukeman, Dowling and Andrea Coursey each supplied a double.

April 15
Herscher 5, St. Joseph-Ogden 4. Andrea Coursey had three hits and Hannah Dukeman hit a home run, but Herscher scored in the bottom of the seventh to hand the Spartans (14-1) their first loss. Emmy Graver and Tori Witruk each had two hits for SJ-O.

April 17
St. Joseph-Ogden 11, Villa Grove/Heritage 2. Hannah Dukeman homered and knocked in four runs as the Spartans (15-1) won at home. Kenzie Pence had three hits and stole four bases. Katelyn Burch and Logan Frerichs each had two hits. Zoey Witruk (10-0) pitched a complete-game two-hitter and struck out 13. One hit for VG/Heritage (8-11) was a home run by Jordyn Ray.

April 18
St. Joseph-Ogden 10, Rantoul 0. Tori Witruk spun a three-hit shutout, striking out eight, and the host Spartans (16-1) remained unbeaten in Okaw Valley Conference play. Andrea Coursey had two hits, including a three-run home run, and finished with four RBI for SJ-O, while Hannah Dukeman and Logan Frerichs each had two hits.

April 19
 St. Joseph-Ogden 14, Mount Zion 1. Hannah Dukeman hit two home runs and Bailey Dowling hit one homer as the Spartans (17-1) won at home. Both Dukeman and Dowling had three hits and teamed up to drive in seven runs. Zoey Witruk pitched a three-hitter.

April 22
Clinton TournamentMaroons second, Spartans third. The host Maroons placed second at their own six-team tournament, falling 13-0 to Romeoville in the title game. Prior to that loss, Clinton defeated Hoopeston Area 9-1 and Mt. Pulaski 18-0. Tori Wilson drove in seven runs on the day for Clinton (12-11). St. Joseph-Ogden defeated Hoopeston Area 18-1 in the third-place game after falling 3-0 to Romeoville. The Spartans opened their tournament with a 15-4 win against Bloomington Central Catholic. Katelyn Burch hit three home runs for SJ-O (20-2) on the day, while Bailey Dowling (seven hits), Hannah Dukeman (six hits) and Katie Poulter (four hits) also hit home runs.

April 24
St. Joseph-Ogden 9, Mattoon 4. Katelyn Burch pounded four hits, including a home run, driving in four runs as the Spartans (21-2) won at home. Bailey Dowling had three hits and knocked in two runs. Ashtyn Cromwell earned win.

April 27
St. Joseph-Ogden 17, St. Thomas More 0. It was a milestone game for Spartans coach Randy Wolken, who earned the 1,000th victory of his career. Three pitchers combined for a no-hitter and Andrea Coursey delivered a round-tripper for the Spartans (23-2). SJ-O batted around, scoring eight runs in the first inning and never looking back. The Sabers fell to 0-9.

May 1
St. Joseph-Ogden 11, Olympia 0. Bailey Dowling added one to her area-leading home run total, and Tori Witruk hit a grand slam in a game in which the Spartans scored all of their runs in the first three innings. Emmy Graver had two hits for the Spartans (24-2) and Zoe Witruk picked up the five-inning shutout.


Categories (3):Prep Sports, Softball, Sports


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