Zilis: Wolken's winning culture nears 1,000-win plateau

Zilis: Wolken's winning culture nears 1,000-win plateau

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 SJ-O 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."

Preps coordinator Anthony Zilis can be reached 351-5235, azilis@news-gazette.com or @adzilils on Twitter.


Chasing 1,000
St. Joseph-Ogden softball coach Randy Wolken, who has 997 career victories, could get his 1,000th win as soon as Thursday. Here’s who his Spartans are scheduled to play this week:

Monday    vs. Mattoon    5 p.m.
Tuesday    at Unity    4:30 p.m.
Thursday    vs. St. Thomas More    4:30 p.m.
Friday    vs. Casey-Westfield    5 p.m.