N-G exclusive: Wolken steps down at SJ-O

N-G exclusive: Wolken steps down at SJ-O

ST. JOSEPH — The decision did not come lightly.

Or quickly.

But Randy Wolken didn’t waver.

The St. Joseph-Ogden softball coach officially announced his retirement on Monday night, telling his players at their season-ending banquet on Monday evening of a choice he said he made this past February.

“I decided before the season started,” the 68-year-old Wolken told The News-Gazette. “My wife, Lana, and I are driving back from Phoenix in February, and I said, ‘This is my last year.’ My administrators have known for a couple months, but they’re about the only ones besides my wife. I didn’t want it on Facebook or on Twitter. I wanted my players to know first, and I didn’t want to tell them before the season because I didn’t want to put pressure on them like, ‘Oh, God, we have to win this game because we don’t want it to be his last game.’”

Wolken leaves with a career record of 1,043-242, the state’s all-time winningest coach and only coach in state history with more than 1,000 softball victories. He achieved that milestone last season in a 17-0 victory against St. Thomas More on April 27, 2017.

A little more than 13 months later, Wolken suffered one of the hardest losses of his 39-year coaching career, a 6-3 setback to Williamsville on May 28.

The defeat in the Class 2A Athens Super-Sectional game, which came after SJ-O led 3-1 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh before Williamsville pulled off a dramatic comeback, not only ended SJ-O’s season one game short of the state tournament, but ended his coaching career.

“The only thing I thought about was when the season’s over, it’s really over for me,” Wolken said. “I wanted to be totally prepared for every game. I did not want my players to know anything was different, and I didn’t want to shortchange their experience at all. I did not think about it until after we lost, and then after we lost, it hit me pretty hard.”

Wolken started the program at SJ-O in 1980 and leaves with nine trips to the state tournament, punctuated by a 2006 Class A state title, 13 sectional titles and 35 regional titles.

This year’s team featured two Division I signees in center fielder Kenzie Pence and third baseman Emmy Graver, both bound for Illinois State, along with sophomore shortstop Bailey Dowling. Dowling, an Alabama commit, earned the Gatorade state Player of the Year honor on Monday, the first SJ-O player to ever accomplish the feat.

Was it difficult for Wolken to retire knowing he’d have Dowling in an SJ-O uniform for the next two seasons?

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “She came up to me, and I thought she was mad. I told her, ‘Don’t be mad.’ She said, ‘I’m not.’ But it is hard because you’ve got the best player in Illinois for two more years. The shelf is not bare.”

The Spartans never experienced a losing season under Wolken — who also coached the SJ-O boys’ basketball program from 1979 to 2002 and is the school’s all-time winningest coach in that sport with 405 wins — on the softball diamond. The Spartans won at least 20 games in 33 seasons with him in charge, and his 2012 team started out 40-0 before finishing 41-1 and placing third in 2A.

Wolken said his wife asked him, “about 100 times,” after he told her in February if he still wanted to retire from coaching.

“I’m sure,” Wolken said Monday night. “This is what I want to do. I am going to go see my grandkids more. I’ve got two in the Minneapolis area. I’ve got four in Springfield. I can see them the other parts of the year, but if you do softball right, it’s seven days a week.”

Wolken said he’s not sure who might replace him next spring, and said it’ll be difficult initially knowing he won’t fill out a lineup card again, call pitches, watch his players drop down bunts or steal bases in an aggressive coaching philosophy Wolken built up through four decades of sustained excellent with the Spartans.

But he’s welcome to pay a visit to a game next spring.

After all, SJ-O’s home field is named Randy Wolken Field.

"I need to stay away a little bit because if I come, parents are going to come up to me and ask, ‘Would you have bunted in that situation?’” Wolken said. “I don’t want to second-guess the new coach.”

Wolken dealt with a wave of emotions on Monday night once he broke the news to his players after their banquet ended.

"They were about like me: crying,” Wolken said. “The parents gave me a standing ovation, so it was nice. There’s no particular reason. I still like softball a lot. I had fun this year. But I just knew it was my time to get out. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had some great, great teams and great, great players, but I pretty well had my mind set before the season that I was going to do this. It’s time. I’m ready.”