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By Randy Whalen

Kevin Fitzgerald allowed himself to become emotional.

The Joliet Central baseball team had just seen its season end on Wednesday, May 22 in a 10-0 loss to crosstown rival, Joliet West in a semifinal matchup in the Class 4A Andrew Regional. 

Fitzgerald has accepted the Athletic Director position at Joliet Central. So he knew a postseason loss would end his time as Steelmen baseball coach. Naturally, the baseball gods had paired the two Joliet teams against each other and Fitzgerald wanted his team to perform well against the school he graduated from in 2005. 

"Ending the season against Joliet West was tough," Fitzgerald said. "I went into every single game thinking we would win, and that game was no different. I thought Jay (Zepeda) pitched well but we did not make enough plays behind him and couldn’t get anything going offensively."

Not only did Fitzgerald attend Joliet West, but he was also a 4-year varsity baseball player for what was then a combined Joliet Township team. One of his coaches there was John Karczewski. Down the road, it would be Karczewski who would ask Fitzgerald to coach with him.

"I started my coaching career at Joliet West because John asked me to coach," Fitzgerald said. "I played for him while in high school and he kind of took me under his wing and really helped me learn how to be a good hitter. 

"He has been a huge mentor for me during my 10 years as a head coach and seeing him at the end of the line during that last game was tough. We shared a nice moment, and that is something I will always remember."

There were memorable moments this season, including winning four of seven games during a stretch in mid-April. 

"Our overall record was 8-24-1," Fitzgerald said. "We won two (Southwest Prairie East Division) Conference games, beating Plainfield East (4-2 at home on April 22) and Plainfield South (1-0 in 8 innings on the road on May 14). We also had nice wins against Yorkville (5-4 at home in an SPC crossover on April 11) and Kankakee (10-9 in 8 innings at home on April 20). 

"All these games were won because of good pitching and timely hitting in clutch situations. We often struggled to get off to good starts this year and found ourselves down early, but when we did get that good start our confidence levels were high and the kids really performed well."

While there were losses, Fitzgerald also had his team ready.

"This can be said about a lot of things, but we continued to stress game preparation so that we were ready as soon as the first pitch was thrown," he said. "I’m proud of our group as we went through some long stretches without a win but kept pushing in practice and were able to break those streaks."

Eleven seniors graduated. They are Xavier Brass, Daniel Calderon, Rodney DeSilva, Joshua Gustafson, Diego Gutierrez, Jose Huizar-ledezma, Nathan Maldonado, John Stasiak, Ricardo Triana Noah Whitlock, and Jay Zepeda. Plus manager Nat Villasenor was also a senior.

"Jay Zepeda was our leader offensively this year," Fitzgerald said. "He had a .349 batting average, with 30 hits, 11 doubles, two home runs and 16 RBI. He was named to the All-Conference Team. Jay also pitched well for us this year throwing 32 2/3 innings and striking out 41. Nathan Maldonado was another leader on the mound throwing 33 2/3 innings and picking up two wins on the mound.

"John Stasiak was really the guy who kept our engines running. He is a competitor who wanted to win more than anything. His energy and passion will definitely be missed on the field at Central. He led our team in RBI with 18."

Five players will continue playing baseball at the collegiate level. DeSilva, Maldonado, and Zepeda will all continue at Joliet Junior College, while Gustafson will be at Monmouth College and Stasiak at Aurora University.  

As he looks forward to the next step in his career, Fitzgerald is very grateful for the last 10 years as head coach of the Steelmen baseball team.

"Coaching at Central has been a wonderful experience for me and something that is hard for me to walk away from. I truly feel we have created an environment where we taught kids the right way to play the game and provided them with lessons beyond the baseball field. I was blessed to have great assistant coaches during my time at Central. 

"Those guys are the most important piece of a good program, all head coaches will say that. I’ve had several guys with me for five plus years (Scott Darley and Andy Kochel) as well as three guys who were with me the entirety of my time as head coach (Tony Juarez, Mike Lara, and Chad Schwartz). These guys are a huge reason why I loved coaching every day and a reason why it was very difficult to move into a different role."

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