Looking back at the VG Diamond Kings fastpitch team
By Tony Hooker
Grant Nohren played a lot of softball, competing from 1977 until knee surgery ended his career. In this second part of the series, I sat down with him to discuss the highlights of those 22 years.
You started playing in 1977. How long did you play?
I played from 77 until I had knee surgery in 1999.
So twenty-two years? Wow. Did you keep stats for all of those seasons?
Gary kept all the books, but we never put together season stats. We played for fun and the “aftergame” more than anything! <smiles>
Were your teams successful?
We were pretty fair to middling, I suppose. We were a bunch of up and comers when I first started. We were young. The key was getting pitching, and you would go as far as the pitchers would take you. Often you’d have a .500 record because your “good” pitcher would win the first game of a doubleheader and your other pitcher would lose the second one. Around here, the regional was the thing. At one time, there were 14 teams in our regional, and only one would get to go to state.
Was there a huge acclimation from baseball to fast pitch?
We didn’t have baseball at ABL. So I went from little league to Babe Ruth until I was 15, and then there was a year where I didn’t play, and that’s when Gary (Grant’s older brother, who is in the state softball hall of fame) started a team. Gary started pitching in 4H ball in high school around 1965 or 66. There was an article that mentioned that he was involved in fast pitch, either as a player or coach, for 44 years.
Marc Greger and Randy Smith pitched for us. Andrew Turner was a younger guy who pitched a bit.
What’s your favorite memory from all those years?
We had tried and tried and tried, and one year we made it out of regionals and got to go to state. I have no idea what year that was, but that was my favorite memory. We finally felt that we were on our way.
Why do you think the popularity of fast pitch has faded?
No pitching. Without a doubt. The 4H started arms in the 60’s, and then it’s always been baseball after that.
Who’s the best player you ever played against?
ADM played over here one year. Ralph Westray, from JR’s, knew ADM’s manager, Denny Scharf, and he brought that team to VG. They had Brian Rothrock and Denny Place. Their main pitcher was Dave Scott, who had earlier pitched for Chanute. My biggest highlight was probably playing a doubleheader against the Pride. With the Pride, you went to play them, they didn’t come to play you, but Ralph convinced them to come over and play a double hitter. They beat our brains out, but we scored a run off of them. I got an RBI double off Brent Stephenson, and that’s the only run we scored in the double header! <laughs> But then we went to JR’s and none of that mattered.
Do you think that the time commitment has something to do with younger players not wanting to play fast pitch?
In a way. It takes a lot of time to become a good pitcher, and without good pitching it’s tough. No one wants to go out there every night and get their brains beat in. It’s always been a pitcher’s game. We were in Neoga one night, and Heater (Gary) was pitching for us against Frank Winnett, who’s in the ASA hall of fame. This was around the mid-eighties. So in the nightcap of a double header, it was Heater against Winnett, a 1-0 game that took 45 minutes! They didn’t take many warmup pitches. If they did, they took 1. There were a lot of strikes being thrown that night. It’s a fast-paced game that’s fun to watch?
Do you think fast pitch will come back?
Sadly, no. I wish it would, but I don’t think it will.
Steve Douglas didn’t play many sports after his freshman year of high school, preferring to work for his dad at the grocery store and prowl the streets of VG in his “race Vega”, but after a late growth spurt, turned to fast pitch in the mid 80’s.
How did you come to play with the Rookies?
I was with the A’s, and it was the end of the 1988 season. We were playing in the regionals at Champaign and Jim Riddell and Kim Underwood approached me about playing for a team with a bunch of young kids. We only had one fundraiser, so we had one shirt, one pair of pants and a hat. You didn’t have anything to switch into that first year. We probably only played 40 ball games and got beat a lot. .
The second year, we got beat quite a bit, but some of the kids were starting to figure it out, and then by the third year, we started winning a few games and hanging with some people, but it took us five or six years before we made it out of the regional. So about the time we got good enough to make state, a lot of the players were starting to have kids and stuff, and it got to the point where we were having trouble getting 12 guys to the ballpark. Around 1994, I decided to get out of it and Andy Hardin took over the team and re-named it the Vandals. After that season, I gave all my gear to Roger Schweighart and Bob Faust, and they put together a team with their sons and played a couple of tournaments.
What’s your favorite memory of your time with the Rookies?
We went to Terre Haute to play in a two-day tournament. It was Lon Tay and Robbie Taylor, Paul Wilson, Kurt Boyer, Mike Underwood and one of the Craddocks, among others. Carroll Swan, who managed the State Bank team at the time, had mentioned that they were playing in a tournament in Casey, and that we should stop by and say hi. We got over there and won our first two games, and Kim Underwood realized that we didn’t have any rooms! We went to Larry Bird’s place, the Boston Connection, and got rooms. We ended up winning a game on Sunday and took third place. They gave us the biggest third place trophy I’ve ever seen, and we took it to Casey and found the state bank team, who were finished playing and Underwood held the trophy out of the sunroof of his car like it was a parade! <laughs> We had a good time with that one.
Who’s the best player you ever played with?
Played with? That’s a good question. The best player I ever played against was Rick Carr. I used to tease him about being an old man, he was 10 years older than me, but he just had it, if you know what I mean. Playing centerfield, running the bases, he was just a great athlete and had that aura about him. Playing for our team? Probably James Fancher. He had the best arm I ever saw, either with or against. He made plays at shortstop that I never saw anyone else make. Chris Brown was a heckuva player, too. Big, strong kid who pitched and played third base for us, we could play him in the outfield, and just hated to lose. Chris would always have to pitch against the other team’s #1 and he would get so mad when we wouldn’t score any runs for him?
Why did interest in fastpitch die out?
It takes a lot of time, everything from diamonds to schedules to umpires and I think everyone just doesn’t want to mess with it. You don’t realize the time commitment that’s involved. I don’t think it has anything to do with cell phones or kids being inside, we just all kind of got busy and our priorities changed. It just got so tough to get 11 or 12 guys who could take a couple days a week off to go play ball. It’s too bad, because it was some of the best times of my life. I still bump into people that I played with and against, and we giggle and tell lies about how “average” we were. <laughs>
Lon Tay started playing softball as a junior in high school and would continue to come home and play during his college years at SIU, eventually playing for almost two decades.
How many years did you play?
All told, I probably played 15 or 16 years.
You won a slow pitch state title with T&G videos. How did that come about?
Yeah, Gary Henderson put that team together. I was at Carbondale and I came home to see Rick Green, and he told me he had a practice out at the school, so I came out to watch, and whoever was supposed to play second base didn’t show up, and Rick asked me if I had my glove, and I happened to have it in the car, so I went and got it and fielded some grounders and Henderson asked me if I could play. I told him I was at Southern, but he said they only played on the weekends, so that summer I would come home every weekend and play. Rob Macomas and Stan Wienke were on that team. The Villa Grove guys were Brad Beesley, John Hopkins, Ryan Block, Rick Green, Chuck Smith and me. It was an incredibly good team. We had the Hodge brothers. We didn’t lose a game at the state tournament and ended up winning it and qualifying for regionals in Indiana, and I think we won one game there. I had always had fast pitch in my blood, but it was a fun way to be with a bunch of guys who won a lot, because on the flip side, in fastpitch I never won anything! <smiles> I think my first year with the Rookies, we went 6-36. I remember we were playing Casey and Denny Throneburg was pitching. Steve Douglas did a good job of explaining how he could throw a rise ball and a drop ball and that sort of thing, and with two strikes, he threw me a curve ball. I walked back to the bench shaking my head and asked Steve if curveballs were legal. <laughs> I hit two career home runs, and the first was in a game at Pesotum. We were getting beat something like 11-1, but when I hit the homer, we acted like we had just won the world series. After the game, some old guy who was watching told Douglas that he had never seen a team having so much fun while they were getting their rear ends beat! And it’s true, we always had so much fun. When I hit the second home run of my career, in Teutopolis, the guys on the bench didn’t say a word, they just sat there, ignoring me. So finally, as I was taking off my batting glove, I asked if any of them had hit a home run in two different decades and then they all came down and started celebrating with me! They were giving me the cold shoulder until I said that.
What’s your favorite moment from your playing days?
This might sound bad, but when I hit the home run in T-Town, it rolled on the ground and hit a goose. For anyone that’s wondering, the goose lived, I didn’t hit it that hard. <smiles> This is a true story, the next year, we were playing in T-Town again and we thought the game started at 6 when it actually started at 7, so we got there early, which never happened, and we started to stretch, which again never happened, and Kerry Cheely and I are in right field stretching, and out of nowhere, a goose comes up to the fence and starts squawking at me. And Cheely looked over and said, “That’s the goose that you hit last year!” No one believes that story, but it’s absolutely true. But it’s the stories like that that you share with your teammates that made it such a great experience.
Why do you think fastpitch lost its popularity?
Without a doubt, it’s the lack of pitching. It takes a long time to learn how to pitch and there weren’t enough guys who wanted to learn how to pitch. The other thing is, nowadays kids are playing 20 or 25 games in the summer, even if they’re not playing travel ball. It’s also an expensive game, by the time you buy hats and uniforms, pay the umpires and travel. The last two years I played, the only places other than Villa Grove that we played were in T-Town and Altamont, so your normal, everyday game was an hour away, on a Wednesday. It just got to the point where it was a grind just to find a game, without traveling. I always laugh at big leaguers complaining about the travel with all the money they make, but here we were, paying to put on that uniform. Of course that uniform quit fitting me very well as I got older, as well. <smiles>
Kerry Cheely played baseball at Parkland College and Bradley University, as well as EI league baseball before finding his way to a fast pitch diamond in his early twenties.
How did you get involved in fast pitch?
I would come home from EI games and go watch the A’s play at Henson Park, and I kept saying that I wanted to play. It just seemed quicker and faster than baseball games.
How long did you play EI?
Rod Lovett started the CU Dodgers EI league team in 1991, the year I graduated from Parkland. That’s also the year that Juan Acevedo, who pitched for the Cardinals, was playing for us. Shane Bennett, who went on to the Expos played on that team. Matt Herges was still a high schooler. There were a bunch of Illinois guys on the teams. Jason Garrelts, whose brother Scott played for the Giants, was on that team.
I quit in 2000, the year my dad died, and in 2002 Bob Faust put together a team with John and Greg Schweighart, Trevor Baker and that crew. Andy Jones and those guys were on the team. We became the Call em Inn. We didn’t have any pitchers, so Ray Hettinger and Bob Faust would pitch, just to get us experience. We did that in 2002 and 2003 and then Andy Jones started to pitch a little bit. When we started, I felt like an old timer. C.R. Black was the oldest guy on the team, and we got our rear ends kicked for several years before we started adjusting and recognizing what a rise ball looked like. I faced all these pitchers in their 40’s, 50’s or even 60’s and they could still bring it. It was quite an experience. I played until 2010. Then Reagan (his daughter) started beginning to play, and I felt like I needed to get more involved with her coaching, and I got involved with summer rec with the Sting and the Cheetahs, and then after that the Elite.
Why do you think it lost popularity?
Pitching. None of the guys work on pitching. When I played, we all used to mess around pitching during warmups and on the sidelines. Now when I’m coaching, I can throw batting practice and I can throw a rise ball, and I can throw a curve and a drop and a change, and when we were starting, none of us could do that. A lot of the old-timers talked about learning how to pitch in 4H, and now there is nobody to teach them how to throw a softball. Without a pitcher, you don’t have a team.
Do you ever see that changing?
No, I don’t think so. It takes a lot of work. Andy Jones worked really hard and in 2007, we won the state tournament and he was a big part of it. Most of the guys on that team were local guys. We had the Schweigharts, Trevor Baker, and CR Black was on the team. Greg Punke, from Forrest, was a pitcher, but most of the guys were from Villa Grove.
Who was the best player you ever faced?
I think that Mike Ries was the pitcher that I never wanted to face, and I faced him when he was in his fifties. He was a crafty pitcher. I would say he was right up there, and then the other guy that I didn’t want to face was Brad Sturdy. Brent Stephenson was another guy. There were a lot of good pitchers out there.
John Schweighart has been around fastpitch softball long enough to have seen it when there were 3 or 4 teams playing in Villa Grove, to now, when he’s the only player still playing.
John, you’re the only person in the area who is still playing, aren’t you?
About five years ago, Shane Ring and Jamie Snodgrass were still playing, but I guess I’m the last one.
Are you still playing as the Log Cabin?
No, about 2012, we merged with a Nokomis team and became the Central Illinois Knights and had a really good team. They had five really good players and we had five really good players and we came together and won state five or six times over a seven- or eight-year period.
Is the quality of softball still as good as it ever was?
Where I’m playing now, there are international players from Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, so the floor has definitely gone up. I suppose the ceiling has gone up, also.
There’s not a lot of recreational fastpitch anymore?
Right. You have to do a lot of traveling to make it work.
Where are you playing now?
Aurora. Dolan & Murphy is the sponsor.
What’s your earliest memory of going to watch softball?
I remember going to watch uncle Kenny a time or two. Dad wasn’t playing by the time I was born.
Is there any interest in bringing it back?
I don’t know. I’ve tried to host a tournament for the past few years, but there are just so few teams that it would be hard to get anything together. Over the years, I’ve watched young players come in and burn out because of the travel. When we first started, we used to go over to Decatur. We’d play the Pride. Brad Sturdy had a team that was over our head for sure, but we got games in that way.
We had Nohren Farms and Call em Inn was our sponsor.
What’s your favorite memory of fastpitch?
The last three years, the team that I’m currently on has qualified for the world tournament, so I’ve gotten to face the best teams and the best pitchers in the world, and that’s been fun.
Who are the best pitchers these days?
Canada has a team who has been really good the last few years. There are a couple of pitchers from Australia who are outstanding. Argentina has a really good, young team.
The guys are always changing. You don’t often find a pitcher who’s the best for 10 straight years.
You do alright against those guys?
They’ve gotten me out a lot more than I’ve gotten them, <laughs> but I’ve done alright. It’s just fun to compete. In January, I went with a team to Florida and we got to face Hill United, who’s been one of the top two or three teams in the world, and their pitcher was throwing about 88. It’s hard enough to hit that in the summer when you’ve been playing games. All in all, it’s a pretty humbling experience. <smiles>
Are you ready for a fastpitch alumni day when we can gather again?
In 2013, we had the state tournament here and we did a little reunion deal and it was a lot of fun.