GRAYSLAKE – The Illinois High School Association had not made any moves to protect the smaller schools. So in the spring of 2006, Grayslake Central baseball coach Troy Whalen had a big decision to make. It was the regional final and the Rams had to play state power Carmel.
And he wasn’t going to play his cards right away. So he had right-hander Gerry Martinez warming up before the big game. And so was southpaw Steve Kuligowski. Of course, Whalen recalled his star left-hander, Kuligowski, had been rocked by Carmel earlier in the year but he went with lefty anyway.
And Kuligowski delivered.
“I was perfect for 5 1/3 innings,’’ Kuligowski said. “And then one of my teammates mentioned that I was throwing a no-hitter and the next guy singled.”
“That’s baseball karma,’’ Whalen noted.
Whalen recalled seeing Kuligowski pitch at an early age even before he took the reins of the varsity team.
“He was a star back at Jaycee Park when he was 10 years old,’’ Whalen said. “He definitely was at the head of the class back then.”
Kuligowski is now 25. He’s working in sales at CDW, a technology company, in Vernon Hills. In his days at Central, he became one of Lake County’s best pitchers.
“He was our silent assassin,’’ Whalen said. “He was very stoic and didn’t show emotion. He was a pretty phenomenal athlete.”
'Zucchini as the baseball bat'
In a sense, the Rams were lucky to get this future star. His father was in the military and stationed near Virginia Beach, Va. Still, he grew up playing baseball.
“I think there is a video of me playing baseball with tennis balls,’’ Kuligowski said. “And we used a zucchini as the baseball bat.”
And then came the move to Grayslake. By this time, Kuligowski was playing soccer, basketball and baseball.
“I played all three for two years,’’ Kuligowski recalled. “But I was about 5-foot-8 or 5-9 and stopped playing basketball. And then there was also golf.”
“Golf was a blast,’’ he said. “I loved playing competitive golf."
But it was clear, the southpaw was a baseball pitcher.
“It was the sport that clicked for me,’’ he said. “It was always second nature for me. Leaning came easy. Once my dad realized I was a left-hander, I was a pitcher for my entire life.”
Now he wasn’t a star right away for the Rams.
“I didn’t get a chance to start when I was a freshman,’’ Kuligowski said. “So they used me in relief. I always played the outfield but I really wanted to start. So I got the courage to ask the coach if I could start a game.”
And Kuligowski was a starter from that day forward. He also contributed offensively.
“I battled at the plate,’’ he said. “I was a .350 to .360 hitter. I had zero power, so I ran the bases well.”
By his junior season, his arm was feeling fine. He won six games for the Rams this season.
“My arm was rubber,’’ he said. “I could throw 90 to 120 pitches.”
In addition to the win over Carmel that season, the Rams stopped Warren and Mundelein in the post-season.
“That’s pretty impressive,’’ Whalen said.
The 7-2 win over Carmel made an impression on Kuligowski.
“It was my most memorable game in high school,’’ he said. “I would say that was the best baseball team we ever had at the school.”
By his final season, Kuligowski was mowing teams down with his fastball. The Rams went into the post-season as the top seed.
“And we got rocked by Zion-Benton,’’ he said. “Nine times out of 10, we beat them. But they out-played us. Give them credit.”
'Next chapter of my life'
Kuligowski’s college career record was 36-6. That included stops at Parkland Community College in Champaign. That club would win a national championship.
“We had three starters combine to go 27-3,’’ he said. “It was ridiculous how good we were.”
From there, he finished at North Park University.
Kuligowski hoped he would get a chance at professional baseball.
“Nothing came about,’’ he said. “It wasn’t the greatest feeling in the world. But maybe I was ready for the next chapter of my life.”
The Rams won’t soon forget him.
“He was inducted into the Wall of Fame two years ago,’’ Whalen said. “I would put him in the top five of the pitchers I’ve had here.”