2002 Male Player: Brian Ward

Brian Ward

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Few softball players have left as indelible a mark on USSSA softball in as short a period of time as Brian Ward.

In barely ten years of USSSA ball, the massive designated hitter and catcher slammed 950 home runs and hit for a .650 average. In the process, he won ten MVP awards, including three Major’s, three NITs and the 1990 World Championship. On 33 occasions, he was named All-Tournament at everything from local tournaments to the most prestigious NITs and World titles.

In 1990 with Sunset Technology and again in 1993 with Bunca Car Wash, Ward captured the USSSA Class AA World title. Competing against Major squads, both those teams also finished fourth in the USSSA World Series each of those years. In fact, from 1990 through 1995, his teams were consistently ranked among the top AA teams nationally and finished either first or second at the USSSA World.

A high school football All-American and All-State shot putter and discus thrower, Ward went on to play football for the University of Illinois, lettering three years and playing in three Bowl games – the Rose Bowl, the Liberty Bowl and the Peach Bowl.

During one summer break, he inquired about playing on a softball team. His previous softball experience had been limited to pick-up 16-inch games back in Darien, Illinois. A woman in the Illini Athletic Department hooked him up with her husband, who managed a team, and he was introduced to 12-inch softball. After graduating college, Ward picked up with the Glass team out of Homewood, Indiana in 1988. In 1990, that team combined with another squad to form the powerhouse Sunset Technology team and the rest is history.

For all of his awesome athleticism, Ward still was honored and excited by the opportunity to play with such future Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame inductees as Kurt Steger and Kurt Dusek. Those two men then convinced him to move up to the AA level, and playing with future Hall of Famers became a habit for Ward.

He is the last starting player from his Sunset Technologies team to be named to either the Michigan USSSA or Illinois USSSA Hall of Fames. Six teammates are enshrined in Michigan’s Hall, and he is the third player to be honored by the Illinois Hall.

Like so many before him, Ward remembers the wins and losses less than the people, saying “My teammates are the most memorable part. I was lucky enough to play on two National Championship teams with two groups of great guys.”

Along with the people he played with, Ward recalls the crowds at some of the tournaments in which he competed.

“When you walked into the stadium, everyone noticed you,” Ward said. “It was really special.”

After winning his second National title, Ward called it a career in order to stay close to home and be with his three sons. He now coaches them and one cannot help but wonder if there is not another Ward in softball’s future. Ward notes that his boys know about his accomplishments and see his trophies and awards.

It’s clear Ward would not mind, saying “I couldn’t think of a better sport to play for an [ex-high school and college] athlete, especially ex-baseball players.”

We could not think of a better player than Brian Ward to welcome into the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame.

2002 Male Player: Mike O'Connor

Mike O’Connor

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Mike O’Connor was deemed to be too small to make his high school baseball team. A late bloomer, he did not finish growing until after graduation, which was too bad for his high school team.

As a shortstop for downstate powerhouse Belleville Budweiser, as well as the Merchants, A’s, Red Wolf and Bud Light, the Waterloo native went on to compile a .675 lifetime average, with over 400 career home runs, while anchoring their infield.

Between 1982 and 1995, O’Connor helped Belleville Budweiser win two State Championships, including the 1984 USSSA Class B, and finish second or third at five NITs. His teams also competed in twelve USSSA World tournaments, finishing second once and usually finishing in the top ten.

In a 19-year USSSA career, O’Connor earned five Class A and B tournament MVP awards and six Gold Gloves. He also won numerous All-Tournament awards at State and NITs in both USSSA and other associations.

O’Connor’s determination came from playing countless back yard games with his older brother Joe. Not only smaller, but also younger than his teammates, O’Connor simply made up his mind to play that much harder.

“He never let me win,” O’Connor said appreciatively of his big brother.

After Joe brought Mike onto the Belleville Budweiser roster, Mike met another softball mentor in Larry Mohne. Whenever Mohne observed O’Connor being particularly down after a loss, he would take him aside and point out that the sun will still come out in the morning and to let the bad games go.

“We didn’t win a World, though we came close,” O’Connor said referring to Bud’s mid-80s second place finish to Powers at the B World in Rockford.

Mostly though, O’Connor has good memories.

“Softball has been such a big part of my life,” he said. “I’ve met so many good people. Good guys, great competition. It was just fun to play.”

Those people include his brother Joe, Mohne, Leon and Mike Kreher, Jeff Davenport and Rick Beatty.

Softball has been such a big part of my life. I’ve met so many good people. Good guys, great competition. It was just fun to play.
— Mike O'Connor

In the past, O’Connor never gave much thought to any honors he might win, let alone be a future Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame inductee, and he tended to underplay what he and his teammates had accomplished.

“We just played the game,” O’Connor said. “We were good and competitive, but not great.”

Twenty years later, he’s begun to think differently.

“This is a real big thing,” O’Connor acknowledged. “I look back and I realize we were respected more than I knew.”

The Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame hopes to remove any lingering doubts Mike O’Connor may have as we welcome him into our ranks.

2002 Male Player: Steve Mai

Steve Mai

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Over a 17-year career with such teams as Dill Brothers, Pit Stop, Bank of Westmont, Mid America Concrete, Belcher’s, the Kings and Tron Piping, infielder Steve Mai has combined a .640 lifetime average with tenacious defense to earn four Gold Gloves, eight State Championships and two Men’s Major Master’s World titles. He also won numerous titles and awards in the ASA and NSA, including National Class B titles in 1993 and 1994.

“The Hall of Fame is a well-deserved honor,” Jim Cushing, an old teammate, said. “He was a hard-nosed player who took as much pride on the defensive side of the field as he did on the offensive end. A lot of times if he was not leading his team on the offensive end, you would see him leading his team at shortstop, making diving catches, turning double plays and taking teams right out of innings.”

That hard-nosed, dive-into-it attitude likely comes from Mai’s background as a baseball shortstop, football player and wrestler. In college, Mai played three years of semi-pro baseball, hoping to catch on for a shot at the majors. He said he avoided softball so as not to ruin his baseball swing. In 1983, while out waxing his car, he got a call to come play at a tournament at Hooker Lake Inn in Wisconsin. It was love at first hit and Mai soon gave up his baseball dreams.

In 1986, Mai started getting known when the Dill Brothers won the USSSA Class B State title, and Mai a Golden Glove. In 1989, Mai met Cushing, who brought him over to the Bank of Westmont, where Mai began playing against the top teams in Illinois and the Midwest. He quickly proved himself up to the task.

“If I ever had to go to battle, Steve would be the first guy I would want in my corner,” Cushing said flatly.

Mai experienced his greatest thrill in softball in 1996, when Tron Piping came back to win four in a row at the Major Master’s World. In the decisive second game, Mai started the double play against powerhouse Mountain Top that gave Tron the victory and the championship.

 “I told my wife, if I ever won a National title, I’d quit,” he admitted. That title came in 1993 and he is still competing.

Mai has since changed his tune a bit on retiring. “When I am unable to play at the level I expect myself to play at, I’ll have no regrets about being finished.”

2002 Male Player: Scott Hill

Scott Hill

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When Scott Hill started playing softball in the early-80s, Hall of Fame honors were the furthest thing from his mind. Back then, it was all about the tasks at hand – winning softball games and tournament championships.

The All-Conference high school football, basketball and baseball player brought his well-honed athletic skills and discipline to the game of softball.

“If there are tangible goals to be reached, I’m driven by that,” Hill said. “I never dreamed of it being a Hall of Fame thing.”

A .600 lifetime hitter who could drive the ball to all fields as well as pop home runs, Hill primarily played left field, as well as some pitcher and catcher. Over a 17-year USSSA career with the Boyz, Bank of Westmont, Illusions and Tron Piping, Hill won five State Championships and two World titles, as well as a national title in another association. Along the way, he was named MVP of four events, including two State Tournaments, and was All-Tournament ten times.

“I’m a guy who leads by my actions,” Hill said. “I’m always thinking about what it takes to win the game.”

“He was the best athlete who ever played for me,” Hill’s old coach John Sturgill said. “And I’ve been around for 33 years.”

Sturgill calls Hill a force on both offense and defense. He recalls one State Championship game in which Hill made three outstanding outfield catches to single-handedly save the game.

He was the best athlete who ever played for me, and I’ve been around for 33 years.
— Scott Hill

“If the game was on the line and you needed an RBI with two outs in the bottom of the month, Scott was the guy I wanted at the plate,” Sturgill said.

In a career filled with trophies and accomplishments as his biggest thrills, and they’re both team accomplishments – winning two Master’s 35 & Over World Championships back-to-back, and the five State Championships he’s been a part of.

Like so many softball players, Hill also enjoyed the time spent with teammates and their families at countless league and tournament games.

In 1994, Hill faced a decision. Following the birth of his daughter, Ciara, who was born with special needs, he chose to cut back on traveling softball.

“My daughter’s health was more important,” Hill said. “[Cutting back] was best for my family.”

That did not stop him from continuing to play at a high level for more than five years, though. In the late-90s, Hill was a fixture on the USSSA Master’s scene, as well as an integral part of several top finishing B and C State Champions before retiring in 1999.

“It probably won’t set in until March 2nd,” Hill said of his Hall of Fame selection. “I look at the people who are in there [and] there’s times I don’t feel I’m at that level. I’m probably my own worst critic, so it’s good to know there are people who think I am talented.”

The Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame has no such doubts about Scott Hill’s qualifications as it welcomes him into its ranks.

2002 Male Player: Don Cox

Don Cox

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It was only one year ago that Don Cox was honored by the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame for his participation on the 1976 World B Champion Forest Hills Lanes team. Now, Don will stand at the podium along to be honored for the whole of his remarkable career as an infielder and pitcher with teams such as RMA, Forest Hills, Bullard’s, the Stars, Schlichting Excavating and Miller Transportation.

He joins fellow Forest Hills Lanes teammates Clancy Horn (1996) and Rod Shives (1999) in the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame Male Player category.

Don Cox became playing softball back in 1961, following an exceptional high school career as a pole vaulter, as well as baseball and basketball player back in Dupo, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. AT that time, the Rockford area had few facilities and Cox had to be satisfied with a 14 to 16 game season. By 1969, however, he had hooked up with manager Paul Bell, who was putting together a future power house squad. From 1970 through 1972, the team compiled a 233-41 record.

If you love the game, you can kinda teach yourself to do anything.
— Don Cox, on teaching himself to throw left-handed after an injury

Then, starting with RMA in 1974 and ending with Little Caesar’s in 1988, Cox compiled an 867-207 pitching record competing against top tournament teams in Class A and B. Over that same 15-year period, he was 48-26 in USSSA Divisional Play. Offensively, he compiled lifetime .485 average.

Cox’s hurling feats include a no-hitter in 1986 against the Wisconsin state champs. He came close on many other occasions, throwing at least a dozen one-hitters, including the first one hitter ever hurled at Forest Hills Diamonds.

“I’m a little embarrassed because I consider myself a team player,” Cox said of his selection. “Any [individual] accolades are from being part of a team.”

Some of Cox’s favorite memories are of playing in front of packed stands of cheering fans in the 70s. But most of all, he enjoyed being part of a team. He is especially proud of the many people he competed with over the years, nothing that they played as teams.

“In all my years, I don’t recall hearing more than a handful of cross words,” Cox recalled.

As talented as he was physically, Cox was just as mentally tough. When he was 25, he suffered serious injuries, including damage to his throwing arm in a motorcycle wreck that threatened his softball career. Undaunted, he practiced throwing with his other arm all winter against a box in the basement, and played the entire 1966 season left-handed as an outfielder.

As usual, Cox was rather unimpressed with that accomplishment saying, “If you love the game, you can kinda teach yourself to do anything.”

In 1976, Cox helped lead Forest Hills Lanes to the USSSA B World Title, giving up only three extra base hits. That same year, he was MVP of the Miller Lite Open in Milwaukee, named All-State and All-World. In 1982, he was All-Tournament at the USSSA A Divisional.

From 1989 through 1994, Don wrapped up a 21-year USSSA career, and 33 years in all, with the Jungle Jims team in the Rockford Park District league, pitching all their games and going 63-7.

Even as he stands for induction into the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame, Cox prefers to direct the praise elsewhere saying, “I want to pay tribute to our sponsors. We never really get to tell them how much they meant to our teams. Our sponsor, Jim Kelley, went above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen a sponsor do.”