ST. CHARLES – As a new American Legion Baseball League season gets underway, the St. Charles Post 342 team is undergoing major changes of its own both on and off the field.
Longtime coaches Dale Wilderspin and Greg Kowalski have retired from their duties. Wilderspin served as the head coach, while Kowalski served as his assistant.
The duo coached the program for 15 seasons, seven of which resulted in top 10 finishes in the state tournament.
In their place, St. Charles North varsity baseball coach Todd Genke will oversee the program as a liaison while North sophomore coach Justin Moriarty will serve as head coach. Joe Nemetz, a coaching veteran from Schaumburg and a current member of the North football staff, will serve as his assistant. Both Wilderspin and Kowalski will serve as consultants to Genke and Moriarty through the transition.
In addition to the coaching change, it’s expected the team will field a roster that features players solely from St. Charles North. While Moriarty expects to finalize the roster in a few weeks, at least five North graduates, three of whom will play baseball collegiately, will play on the squad.
The group includes Nick Drawant (Elgin Community College), Jack Dennis (Tiffin), Drew Underwager (Concordia), Tim Hausl and Austin Lovelady.
The season began a week and a half ago, and the team is set to play in the Post 76 Summer Classic, a tournament hosted by the Wheaton Legion today (11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.) and Saturday (8:45 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.) at the Wheaton Legion fields at 570 S. Gary Ave. in Carol Stream.
“[The program] is going in the right direction,” general manager Robert Ciesla said.
Kowalski said talks for a change in leadership began a year ago, as he wanted to make sure the program was in the hands of people who understood the significance of the American Legion program, and embraced growing it with the same passion he and Wilderspin both shared. With Genke and Moriarty aboard, Kowalski calls it a “win-win” for the continuity of American Legion baseball.
From the beginning of their tenure, Wilderspin and Kowalski laid out “State Power Goals” for their teams, which encompassed their goals to become one of the premier teams in Illinois and contend for state titles. While their teams never won the state title, they led them to three fourth-place finishes in the tournament over the years.
“Dale and I are proud of the accomplishments over the years. We embraced and recruited talented players from the Fox Valley area, and wouldn’t have been able to accomplish them without the players we had, ” Kowalski said.
The landscape of American Legion baseball has changed drastically over time, as Kowalski recalled that games were played at Burlington Central when they first started coaching the team. As a result, it became increasingly difficult to recruit players to join the team because of travel distances to and from games and practices.
“[Wilderspin and I] knew there was enough talent in the [St. Charles] area,” Kowalski said.
It was just a matter of how to get them on the team and play. Over time, a variety of summer travel programs began to flourish, and participants from the St. Charles area began to drop from the Legion program, but through the leadership of Kowalski and Wilderspin – and support from the Legion – teams still remained competitive using players from both St. Charles high schools, Geneva and Batavia.
The program saw hundreds of players come and go, and some of those players went on to compete in college and the major leagues. Matt Reynolds, a left-handed pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, played for the Post 342 from 2004 to 2005.
“When you look back and think of kids’ accomplishments, as coaches, I like to think we had a small part in their success,” Kowalski said.
Today, the American Legion baseball program has 5,400 teams across all 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. The nonprofit organization is devoted to advocating for servicemen and women, and also assists young ballplayers with scholarships for school.
Above all, it teaches the community about American ideals and the importance of pride in the United States.
“I feel very privileged to be a person who carried on those traditions,” Kowalski said.