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!

1997 Male Player: Al Van Gampler

Al Van Gampler

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A shortstop whose defensive abilities were recognized by all who knew the game of slow pitch softball, Al Van Gampler also filled in as both a pitcher and outfielder over a 16-year career. A career .675 hitter, Van Gampler hit more than 300 home runs.

He played ball for Malnars Tap (Joliet), Lilly Air Systems (Itasca) and Joe Blacks (Highland).

Van Gampler played in five USSSA Major World Series. His 1985 Lilly Air Systems team, arguably the best ever from the state of Illinois, was ranked as high as fourth in the country by the National USSSA.

He twice won the Best Defensive Player award in USSSA Major NITs and was named to numerous USSSA Major NIT All-Tournament teams. A five-time Illinois Class A All-State team member, Van Gampler was named MVP of both the 1984 and 1987 Open A State Tournaments.

In 1996, he came out of retirement to play with Tron Piping, winning the USSSA 35 & Over Major World Title and again earning USSSA World All-Tournament team honors.

1997 Male Player: Dan Prater

Dan Prater

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An outfielder with a lifetime batting average over .600, Dan Prater was a power hitter with more than 1,000 home runs hit during his 17-year USSSA career.

Prater played for Crowther Roofing/Buske Electric (1978), Burla Construction (1979-1986), Brown & Lambrecht (1987), Joe Blacks (1988), Acutron (1989), Bank of Westmont (1990-1991), Joliet Merchants (1992), Belchers Constructions (1993-1994) and his last year with Mid America Concrete (1995).

Prater was named to two All-World teams, played on five Illinois State Championship teams, named State MVP three times, named All-State six times and was once named USSSA Open All-Regional.

Prater once hit eight consecutive home runs at the Milwaukee USSSA Major Qualifier, winning the home run title with 11 in just four games. He is a member of the 1996 Men’s Major 35 & Over World Championship team Tron Piping, as well as an All-World selection.

1998 Male Player: Jim Cushing

Jim Cushing

Jim Cushing batted lead-off and played left field for the 1996 and 1997 USSSA Master’s 35 & Over Major World Champions. His teams have won four other National & World Titles in both the ASA and NSA programs. Cushing was also named to three USSSA All-World teams at the 1995, 1996 and 1997 USSSA Master’s 35 & Over Major World Tournaments, as well as four more All-World/National teams in other national associations.

Three times, he was voted MVP of a National/World Tournament, including the 1997 USSSA Master’s 35 & Over Major World Tournament. Also, he was twice named MVP of Illinois USSSA State Tournaments, Men’s Class B in 1995 and Open Fall State in 1994.

Cushing has won three Gold Gloves at the 1986 Men’s Class B Qualifier, 1994 USSSA Men’s Class B State and 1995 Ottawa 14-inch Open.

Nine times, Cushing was named to a USSSA All-State Tournament team for his play at these tournaments, where his teams accumulated seven Illinois USSSA State Titles.

Known as a singles hitter, he once hit three consecutive home runs in a USSSA World Qualifying tournament with the last one coming in the bottom of the seventh inning to win the game.

“Cush” has been named to the All-American Touch and Flag Football Team four times. He is currently passing along some of his knowledge of softball by helping his good friend and head coach, Ron Havelka, as a part-time assistant for the girls’ varsity softball team at Downers Grove South High School.

1998 Male Player: Ben Holt

Ben Holt

Ben Holt played USSSA softball for 15 of his 36-year playing career. He was a catcher and power hitter who would keep people in the stands just to see him take one more swing.

Bill Veeck, the late owner of the Chicago White Sox, once held a home run hitting contest at the old Comiskey Park. The contestants hit 16-inch softballs from second base between the games of a double header. Taking his turn in front of thousands of people, he put a 16-inch softball into the upper deck in left-centerfield. A hit that Veeck often marveled about until his death.

The Professional Softball league had a Chicago entry in the late-70s and promptly signed Holt to a contract. In his first year, he became the only player in the Professional Softball League’s history to win the Triple Crown.

His greatest thrill in softball came in North Carolina when he stroked a game-winning home run for Steele’s at the USSSA Men’s World Series.

Three times, he was named to the USSSA All-Tournament team at the Men’s Class A level (the highest level at the time), including the 1979 World Tournament in North Carolina.

Holt’s teams included: Hillcrest Tavern, The Lantern, Taylor Brothers, Chicago Storm, Steele’s, Jerry’s Catering and Lilly Air Freight.

1998 Male Player: Dennis Albert

Dennis Albert

Dennis Albert was a power hitting outfielder, who has driven over 1,200 home runs over the fence in his 22-year USSSA career. He was a .640+ (career) hitter who has been named to two USSSA All-World teams in 1988 in Sterling Heights, Michigan and 1990 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In 1976, he was named MVP of the Illinois USSSA Men’s Class B State Tournament. In 1985, he was the beating champion (best average: .890) of the USSSA Men’s Class A State Tournament.

He was the Red Bud USSSA league home run champion five times, the Red Bud USSSA league batting champion three times and named league MVP twice.

His teams qualified for 17 USSSA Divisional, National & World Tournaments. They also accumulated one USSSA Men’s Class B State Title and two USSSA Men’s Class A State Runners-Up.

While playing in the loser’s bracket with 100 degree plus temperatures in Pevley, Missouri, he ran into the fence and received a cut above his eye that required stitches. He later returned to help his team win seven straight games in that heat to get the title.

He is an all-around athlete who was MVP of his high school’s baseball team for all four years. In his senior year of high school, he was also named MVP of his high school track team and co-MVP of his basketball team.

Dennis’s teams included: Bill James, Bills, Annie’s Army, Braun’s Tavern, Belleville Budweiser and Belleville Merchants.

1999 Male Player: Rod Shives

Rod Shives

This hard-hitting shortstop began his USSSA career in 1972 and played until 1996. His teams included the following teams, all from Rockford, Illinois: White Eagles, AXA, Club 51, RMA, Twin Oaks, Forest Hills Lanes, Bullards, Rockford Stars, Miller Transportation, Town Hall and Little Caesar’s.

With a .600 career batting average with 750 home runs, Shives was selected MVP at a 1976 Class B qualifier and a 1984 Class A qualifier. He also claimed All-Tournament honors at the 1976 Class B World Tournament in Tullahoma, Tennessee. His team, Forest Hills Lanes, won that World Championship.

All-State tournament team awards include the 1976 Class B and 1977-1982 Class A. Shives played in every Class A or B State Tournament from 1976-1988 with the sole exception of 1987. He appeared in Class A Regionals from 1977-1982 and again in 1986. Shives also played in Class A Nationals from 1983-1985 and won the Best Defensive Player Award at the Class A Nationals in 1981.

1999 Male Player: Mick Balestri

Mick Balestri

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In 1989, Mick Balestri’s team, Bridgeport Crush, captured the first-ever USSSA Class A 16-inch World Title in Sturdevant, Wisconsin, and in 1995, the Crush also won the last USSSA Class A 16-inch World Title in Joliet, Illinois as he pitched a one-hitter in the title game.

Balestri was named MVP of both of those USSSA Class A tournaments. In between, in 1992, his Luciano’s Gamblers team also won the USSSA Class A 16-inch World Title, and again, Balestri was named MVP.

A pitcher, manager and number three hitter in the lineup was known to drive the ball into the opposite field and use his bat control to execute the hit and run. He would use any 16-inch player in the game to help give his team an advantage over their opponent in a game.

In 1992 at the USSSA Class A World Tournament, Balestri pitched four shutouts for Luciano’s Gamblers, and they captured the World Title that season. In 1993, he was named MVP of the USSSA Men’s 16-Inch Major State Tournament in Orland Park, Illinois. Two times, Balestri was named MVP of a Major 16-inch league and twice he was named MVP of a Class A 16-inch league. His teams have also finished in the top eight teams at four USSSA State Tournaments, and in the top three at two other USSSA 16-inch World Tournaments.

In 1989, at the USSSA Class A 16-inch World Tournament, he was named as the manager of the All-World team. He has played in a total of nine USSSA 16-inch World Tournaments and eight USSSA 16-inch State Tournaments. He describes his greatest thrill in softball as winning the first ever USSSA Class A 16-inch World Tournament and being named MVP of that event.

As a player, he always took pride in his defense and leadership. He has enjoyed being able to play USSSA softball at the different stadiums and complexes all over the Midwest. A back injury in 1994 has limited his playing time, but he remains an active manager.

1999 Male Player: Dirk Androff

Dirk Androff

Dirk Androff was a Decatur, Illinois native and outstanding athlete at Decatur Eisenhower High School, where he earned all-city honors in basketball and football. He attended Eastern Illinois University, where he competed in both sports. After graduation, he had a free agent try-out with the New York Jets.

His fame, however, came in slow pitch softball as he began his career with Belleville Budweiser and the St. Louis Rockets. Androff became a slow pitch household name as he signed his first major division contract in 1998 with Steele’s Silver Bullets. In 1991, he joined Ritch’s Superior/TPS and earned USSSA World Series MVP with the World Champions.

Androff participated on 21 World and National Men’s Major Championship teams, with a lifetime batting average of .733 and 1,814 USSSA home runs at the Major Level. In addition to USSSA World Series MVP in 1991, he was a four-time USSSA All-World team selection and currently remains on the USSSA Men’s All-Time All-World team, which is selected on the basis of World Series All-World selections, World Series MVP Outstanding Defense Player and Hall of Fame recipients.

Without argument, Androff was one of the finest slow pitch players from Illinois ever to play the game.