What began as a team full of grade school and high school classmates enjoying the game of softball, as Wilifred’s in 1966 and Feldott’s in 1967, rapidly grew into a softball giant in Illinois softball. This team was named The Lantern and would become the pilot team in promoting Illinois participation in the USSSA organization as it evolved from the Naperville Softball League in the early 70s. This formed tournament team also became Illinois’ first men’s team to participate in a USSSA National Tournament. This talented group also captured multiple league and tournament titles in St. Charles, Geneva, Joliet, and Naperville, along with additional tournament championships in Ottawa, LaSalle, Kewanee, Waukegan, Elmhurst, Rockford, and highlighted by a state tournament title in Peoria.
The team enjoyed success, especially in the Rockford and Joliet tournaments as they found they could defeat nationally ranked teams. The team found early on the best tournaments were hosted by the USSSA because they attracted the nation’s top teams to their events. This attraction to competition led The Lantern to places like Milwaukee, Ft. Wayne, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
In the team’s first season, they registered a perfect 35-0 record mostly against Illinois competition. In their second season, they accumulated a 73-and-9 mark and were recognized as one of the finest slow pitch teams in Illinois when the team finished in third place at the USSSA National Tournament in Louisville, Kentucky.
Due to this success, several Lantern members were quickly swept up by the newly formed Chicago Storm, a professional softball team. Due to this change of personnel, The Lantern’s participation in national events became limited, but even shorthanded they continued to dominate and find success at the local and state levels.
The story of The Lantern is one of outstanding accomplishments, which started as a local power and rose to the top in several short seasons. There is little doubt, The Lantern had very few weaknesses, as they were loaded with not only talented softball players, but athletes that knew how to compete. Some became national long ball driving champions in golf, some threw the javelin in world competition, while others became MVPs of the professional softball league and national tournaments in Louisville.
There is no doubt that the success provided by The Lantern created a relationship that still thrives today within the history of Illinois USSSA softball, as they perhaps had the largest impact than any other team in the growth of the Illinois USSSA program.
The list of Lantern players, that includes seven Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame inductees (as of 2009), reads like a Who’s Who of Illinois softball: Tom Spahn, Terry Mueller, Rick Sweeney, Bill Kruzan, Chuck Baumgartner, Benny Holt, Ron Brown, Dennis Sullivan, Herbie Donkin, Jim Walsh, Dick Walsh, Jim Swanson, Neal Mueller, Kenny Brown, Jim Fredericks, Tom Pniak, Irv Porter, Dan Vrbancik, Tom Pegranoff, Gary Girard and Jim Vermaat.
Thank you to The Lantern for lighting the Illinois USSSA pathway so many others could follow in your footsteps toward softball success.