2018 Male Player: Joe Speaker

Joe Speaker

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Joe Speaker’s love of softball was created at an early age, right out of high school. He began playing in the Joliet Park District Church League.

“I lived for Monday nights back then,” Speaker said.

This team, in a few short years, played in the championship game of the Prestigious Joliet City Tournament.

“Even though we got beat, my desire to get better and play better competition grew,” he said.

In the 1980s, Speaker played with Jim’s Peppers (C Level) and Brown and Lambrecht (A/B Level), where he was introduced to the USSSA game. He played with many of the best players in Illinois, and team and individual success followed.

In 1989, Speaker began playing for the Fraternal Order of Police in Joliet. He played on eight city championship teams in the 90s. That winter, he was invited to join the Bank of Westmont.

“I credited the players and managers on the Brown and Lambrecht, FOP and Bank of Westmont teams for teaching me the game of softball,” Speaker said. “Keeping the team involved and playing well was much more important that individual play.”

Playing on the Bank of Westmont, Mid-America Concrete, Belchers, Kings, Illusions, Tron Piping and Ken’s Beverage, Speaker was on numerous State Championship teams. While enjoying much success at the World Tournament level, mostly in A and B divisions, there was never a National Championship.

In 1994, Speaker began playing in the USSSA 35 & Over division. Numerous State Tournaments were won with great sponsors like the Bank of Westmont, Mid-America Concrete, Tron Piping and KBI. Then, in 1996 and 1997 they won back-to-back World Series titles in the 35 & Over division.

“The ‘95 win was by far my greatest softball memory,” Speaker said. “To come back and beat Mountain Top twice was unbelievable.”

Speaker hit over .600 in his USSSA career with over 700 home runs. He was also an excellent defensive first baseman.

“The USSSA is the big leagues of softball,” Speaker said. “Tournaments were always organized and well run.”

“I was blessed to play for great sponsors, great coaches, with great teammates and a great family,” he said. “Team success had to come before individual honors, and wow, did I play for some great ones.”

You’re still winning, Joe, by being inducted into the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame. Congratulations!

2018 Male Player: John Van Gennep

John Van Gennep

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My name is John Van Gennep. I have played softball and coached since 1984. USSSA has always been my favorite organization. In fact, I am at the USSSA Girl’s USA Elite Select World Fast Pitch Tournament in Kansas City writing this in between games.

After playing professional baseball with the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago White Sox, I was introduced to the game of 12-inch softball. For the next 24 years, I played on some great teams. Calumet Lift Truck and Lorenzetti’s were the two main teams, but early on I played for the Sticks, Desperados and one year with Class AA Lansing Glass.

A few years when I was single, we played as many as 200 games a summer. It was my life at that time and I loved it. I won many awards over the years including MVPs, All-Tournament Team and Most Home Runs in a State Tournament in Rockford in 1989. I also received numerous All-Tournament teams at other State Championships as well as National Championships. I still have a trophy case filled with awards from softball both playing and coaching. I also won several home run titles in the leagues we played. I never kept track of exactly how many home runs I had, but I have to say it was well over 800. I figured in 24 years of playing, I know I averaged well over 30 home runs a year, so it could be well over, but it does not matter really. What really matters is that I left my mark in the game I loved.

My main position was outfield as I always had a good arm and could through people out from the outfield especially when I was young. I also played third base for a while but really loved the outfield as I was blessed with having good speed. Toward the end of my career, I also played co-ed softball and that was fun as well. We won the State Title and NITs several times while playing in that program.

I had a great career and played with some remarkable athletes over the years. When softball was starting to be a reason to go to the bar instead of winning, I decided it was time to get into coaching.

For the past 11 years, I have been coaching and now live in the kids that I coach. I have run the Lincoln-Way Storm girls softball program for past 11 years and coach the Dirt Devil Elite Girls Fast Pitch Team, which is why I am in Kansas City at the Nationals. We have helped each girl on our team get a college offer to play at the college level. That is very exciting to give back to the kids and watch them go on and play at the collegiate level, and know I have helped others achieve their dreams. I also coach high school softball at Lincoln-Way East and prior to that at Providence Catholic High School.

My favorite tournaments were in Rockford. We always loved playing USSSA softball at Brenda’s tournaments. We always had the time of our life there, and they always put on great tournaments and treated everyone with the hospitality above and beyond what any other tournaments had.

I had the luxury of coaching my daughter for a while, and she went on to get a full ride to play ball in Florida. I will tell you that she is even better than I ever was as a player, and has broken many records both hitting and pitching in college. I always told my kids as well as players, “Leave your mark wherever you go. How do you want to be remembered when it’s all said and done?”

I am not here to brag about my daughter, but I promise you one thing, if you ask her what her favorite tournaments were, she would say without a doubt the Rockford tournaments. That is tribute to all that Brenda has done for the game of softball, and we cannot thank her enough for all they have done for the game.

USSSA is where I played the majority of my softball, and now I get to coach the kids in the same organization that I loved to play in. I always loved hitting in USSSA because it had the lower arch and always had two umpires and was just a class organization. Softball is a great game and I am blessed to be a part of a great organization. I hope to continue to coach if I am physically able. It keeps me young and I just love giving back to the kids and helping them achieve the greatness that I once had.

It is an honor to be chosen to be a part of the Hall of Fame in the USSSA organization. I know that I practiced what I preach to everyone, and that is to go out and leave a mark at whatever you do in life.

This award makes me proud and proves that hard work does pay off. It’s an honor and I am forever grateful for being a Hall of Famer with the greatest organization in the world.

“John, you’ve been a great competitor as a player and as your daughter’s coach and continuing as the Devil’s coach, still competitive yet always the gentleman. Thanks for all you’ve given as a player and coach. You are most worthy of this award and welcome to the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame,” Brenda Paulson said.

2018 Male Player: Scott Opels

Scott Opels

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Scott Opels softball career started while he was playing with his two cousins, Jeff and Rick Wulbecker. It was there he started to learn the game of softball and the importance of teamwork and being a great teammate. These things would stay with him for his whole career.

Opels was lucky enough to play on some very talented teams in his career: Sports Page, The Page, Y Not Inn, HRI, Ken’s Beverage, KA Softball, Creative Design and KBI. While on these teams, Opels got to play with some great teammates, who became lifelong friends. He was also able to play against some for the best players, not only in Illinois, but the entire country.

Opels’s career was a two-part act. He started as a second baseman and then moved to shortstop to try to fill the shoes of Timmy Hart. Then, when he moved to play with HRI, he became a pitcher for the rest of his career.

Being a physical education teacher and coach, Opels understands the importance of the people in charge of running teams. He feels very lucky to have been able to play for: Harvey Foster, Greg Marek, Brian Nielsen, Keith Taylor, Alex Wanless, Ken Adams, Don Loid, Dave Catalani and Massimo Piazzolla.

Besides the games and tournaments, Opels recalls all the work that went into getting ready to play, whether it was batting practice in Joliet before a league game, meeting Pete Mulligan after to work at some open field to hit, hitting whiffle balls with Jim Kersten and Shane Nelson or talking his wife Janet into pitching to him or hitting him ground balls. All these things were done to be ready to play his best in tournaments.

Opels probably batted in the neighborhood of .650 for his career and may be one of the few softball players who can remember every home run he has ever hit.

Some of Opels’s favorite game memories are: winning his first State Tournament in O’Fallon beating HRI and being named MVP, finishing second in the Class B World with KA Softball and being named Defensive MVP and finally winning the 40 & Over Worlds with Ken’s Beverage. He was named to the All-Tournament team.

2018 Male Player: Dave Shortz

Dave Shortz

“Shortzy,” a DeKalb native, has spent 30 years participating in USSSA play, catching behind the plate in numerous Worlds, National and State Championship contests. His individual home run count of over 2,000 is unequaled by few within the Illinois USSSA program. His numerous All-World, All-National (NIT) and All-State honors provides a resume that reaches as far as some of his long home runs.

His contributions to the game and to the teams he has participated with are numerous, as he is the definition of camaraderie and leadership on such outstanding AA, A and B teams such as RMA, Joe Black’s, The Lantern and Burla Construction. He has also contributed to outstanding play on co-ed and senior softball teams in World Tournament play.

“The USSSA has enhanced the game of softball over the years,” Shortz said.

He has also participated on the Chicago-based team, The Chicago Storm. He feels that his association with the good teams of the USSSA has helped land him in the Illinois Hall of Fame. The participation with great ball players has helped him get better over the years.

It may be hard to believe, but Shortz had controversy with an umpire after he was caught leaving first base early in a game in Wisconsin. It seems his tone of disapproval created a double pump ejection and a cry of “You’re out of here!” from the umpire. As Shortz removed himself from the field of play, he remarked, “That was one of the best throw outs I have ever experienced!”

Dave now gets to experience getting thrown into the Illinois Hall of Fame!