2012 Hall of Fame Inductees

Female Player Category

Laurie "Pizza" Guinta

As a Rockford native, Laurie began playing softball in the late 70s at Rockford East High School, where she earned all-conference honors. This was only the beginning of a 36 year softball career, which has seen “Pizza” play for numerous state and national championship teams.

She began playing after high school with the Girogi Girls in 1980, but soon moved to more competitive teams as Prairie Moon Saloon, Kinney Shoes, John Slack, Ace of Diamonds, Sandy’s Amoco/Cubbys, Lithiuian/Blackhawk, and Add A Bath Demarini/Kaisers.
After 30 years of USSSA play, she reflects that she has been very fortunate to have played on so many great teams and with so many great teammates.

With a career batting average of .610 and a primary position as pitcher, Laurie earned numerous all-state and all-NIT honors. Highlighted by an MVP selection during the 1989 Class C State Tournament.

She recognizes teammates, Wendy Fudge, Toodie Moss, Vicki Brown, and Meghan Murray as a few of the best players she has shared the field with over the years, while mentioning Al Dalhmier, Tim Gifford, and Dick Hahn among some the great coaches that she has had the privilege to play for over the years.

She thanks the USSSA with providing her the opportunities to have met so many great people that have developed into so many great friendships that have lasted a lifetime. She also thinks it is great that she has had the experience to have played with the second generation of some of her teammates.

Even though Laurie’s funniest softball experience landed her on her butt, while pitching and falling backwards over the pitching rubber, she got back on her feet and dusted herself off to be honored as one of the newest members of the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame.

Male Player Category

Kurt Kozlowski

Being a champion, always seems to have found its way into Kurt Kozlowski’s resume of sports success stories. It could be in football where he was quarterback for Sycamore High School’s undefeated conference champions, or shortstop on another high school championship squad.

Being All-State also became the norm, as he was a two time junior college all-state selection at shortstop prior to playing Division I baseball at the University of New Orleans.

This early success laid the groundwork for future softball success stories over the next 32 years of participation, as Kurt earned several all-state and all-NIT selections while playing Class B, prior to being an all-world team selection with the world champion Ken Beverage team in 2002.

While swatting over 1000 homeruns during his career,  he played mostly leftfield for outstanding teams like Joe Danials, Illusions, DeKalb Chiefs, Joe Blacks, Tron Piping, and Ken’s Beverage. 

Kurt states that he has been very blessed to have played alongside some really great players. While mentioning, Dave Shortz, Al VanGampler, Jim Cushing, Brian Schultz, Danny Prater, Dave Villareal, and Larry Hayse to name a few.  He also sighted Dave Shortz and Dave Campuzaro as two of the best coaches that he had played for.

Kurt says he wants to be remembered as a player that loved every part of the game. Kurt don’t worry, with your induction into the Hall of Fame class of 2012, you will be remembered as such. 

Male Player Category

Jeff Ott

Jeff has never been one that would seek the spotlight, but always wanted to be the one with the bat in his hands with the game on the line. He loves to win and hates to lose, which is expected from a person that plays the game with total passion. He always hopes to gain the respect of his teammates and his opponents through his total effort on the field.

With the countless accolades that Jeff has been awarded, his only regret is not playing an entire season with one of the super teams, but credits the USSSA program with allowing him to travel the country, meet great people, and play with some great teams. He states, “The friendships that I have gained through softball will last a lifetime.”

In his 24 years of softball participation, which began in 1986 with the Peoria based Hulick Electric team, Jeff has found state, NIT, and world tournament success with such teams as Bunca Car Wash (1990 Class A World Champions), Sunnyvale (2nd in Class AA World in 1998), and perhaps the best team that he had played for in (Long Haul Trucking (1999 & 2000 Class AA World Champions & Runner-up at the Major World Series).

As a primary hot corner player (3rd base), Jeff captured many all-world selections and defensive MVP awards, while also receiving numerous NIT MVP awards at A & AA classifications.

It was evident during Jeff’s early years, that he would find success on the diamond, as he played baseball at East Waterloo High School before taking his talents to the University of Iowa,  where he earned all-conference recognition his junior and senior years, beforebeing drafted by the New York Yankees where he played 2 seasons, while reaching the AA level.

Looking back at his quarter of century participation, he wants to be remembered as the guy that always came to play by playing hard and was the clutch player that got that hit when it meant the most.  For the teams that played against Jeff over the years, they will testify that he has accomplished his goal.

Male Player Category

Mike Kreher

After 25 years of softball participation, Mike Kreher has only one regret. That he is, no longer able to compete competitively in a sport that brought him so much enjoyment, success, and friendships.

After a very successful high school baseball career at St. Henry’s High School and a state championship with the Belleville Legion program, Mike received a college baseball scholarship, while also playing soccer collegiately.

He began his softball playing days in the summer of 1969, after being asked to participate by Jim Scheibe with the 59’S team, prior to Rich Kaiser steering him to competitive softball with the Loggers in 1974.  This led him to the Budweiser team, which won the state title in 1984, prior to finishing second in the world tournament.

With a .600 plus lifetime batting average and over 500 homeruns, while playing mostly third base during his career, he earned all-state and all-world honors.

His most memorable softball moment occurred during the Worth Invitational Tournament at Tullohama, Tennessee, when he and his brothers Leon and Larry hit back to back to back home runs. He also recognizes his two brothers along with Mike O’Conner and Denny Albers as the best players that he had the opportunity to play with.

He also recognizes the USSSA as a great avenue to competitive softball through their well run tournaments.

Mike hopes to be remembered as a player that always hustled and never gave up, no matter what the score!

Manager Category

Tom Starck

When building a team, a good manager always does his best in bringing his team close together through good on and off field comradeship.  During a period of 26 years of managing, Tom Starck has accomplished this feat with outstanding teams, such as The Jokers (1975-85), Joe Blacks Softball Club (1988-2000), and The Florida Heat/Nave Plumbing/Joe Blacks/Worth (2000-2002).

Tom’s managerial abilities have resulted in over 1500 victories at the highest levels of softball competition. Histeams have won state championships in Florida, Wisconsin, including the 1993 Class A title in Illinois. In 1989 at Milwaukee and in 1997 at Sterling Heights, MI the Joe Black teams finished 3rd in the Men’s Major NITs, before capturing the Cincinnati Major NIT in 2002.

In 2002, Tom co-managed his team to the USSSA Men’s Major World Series at Orlando, Florida.

With all of this success, perhaps his most outstanding accomplishment is that his teams each year from 1976 thru 2002 participated in the USSSA Divisional and/or World Tournaments.
During a span of 15 seasons, Joe Blacks Softball Club became a national program that was known as the best team in Illinois during that period, with no less than 26 former players in state Hall of Fames from the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida.
Tom says his biggest softball win was winning the USSSA World Series at Kansas City in 2002.

It is likely, his biggest softball moment is being inducted into the USSSA Illinois Hall of Fame.

Umpire Category

Willis Miles

Willis began umpiring in 1982 and has created a resume that reads like a who’s who of umpiring. During his stay behind the plate, Willis has umpired in 75 World Series events and has done 45 Championship contests.

In March of 2008, he was named United States Specialty Sports Fast Pitch Umpire of the Year. He also was named Assistant Illinois State Fast Pitch Umpire in Chief in 2010 to present.

In providing insight into Willis’s contributions to the Illinois USSSA, Brenda Paulson said, “Willis has been instrumental in the development of the Illinois USSSA Fast Pitch program and his umpires. Due to his efforts, we have been able to host much larger state and World Series events.”

In addition to Willis’s umpiring efforts, he has volunteered at the March of Dimes Snowball Tournament for the past 10 years, while teaching 8 to 14 year olds the fundamentals of the fast-pitch game. Presently he is also putting together summer camps for elementary students by teaching them the game of softball, while continuing youth instruction at summer leagues.

His abilities of passing on the knowledge of umpiring and the softball game to others has allowed Willis to become one of Illinois’ newest USSSA Hall of Fame members.

Hall of Fame Director Category

Paula Olj

For Paula, finding enjoyment in her efforts as a director came while observing a large crowd of spectators and competitive players enjoying the game of softball. With over 70 men’s and women’s tournaments directed and half of them State Tournaments and NIT’s, Paula has reasons to feel good about her efforts.

Prior to her appointment as the Women’s State Coordinator in 1990 Paula worked in the State Office in 1987 and 1988. In 1989 Paula also worked as a Tournament or Site Director for the Men’s & Women’s State Tournaments and NIT’s held in the Rockford area.   This cumulated a long career with the USSSA; as a player in 1977 thru 1986, as a coach in 1987 and 1988 and her appointment as the first Women’s State Coordinator in 1990.

Through her participation in many tournaments, Paula knew how important it was to play in a well run tournament with good bracketing, good qualified umpires and good playing conditions and there were none better than Ken Franzen at Forest Hills Diamonds. With that knowledge, she provided each team her best that played in her tournaments.

Paula’s most memorable tournament that she directed was the 1993 Women’s Class D State, when the winner of the tournament had lost their first game and came all the way back through the losers bracket in a 32 team field to win the championship.

Her funniest directorship situation occurred while she was helping Brenda run the Men’s Class E State Tournament. At the time, Paula was working for a local beer distributor, which had sponsored a team in the tournament. Unfortunately for Paula, this team was found to have an illegal shortstop and she had to be the one to forfeit the team out of the tournament. It was rather awkward for Paula when she went to work on Monday morning.

Paula ran the Women’s program from 1990 to 1999. During her tenure she was awarded the Illinois Rookie of the Year in 1990, Illinois Director’s All State Team in 1993 and 1997, Illinois State Directors Award in 1994 and Onesti’s Softball Super Show Award winner in 1998. During all these years she put her heart and soul into the Women’s Program and built a very large competitive program.

Paula’s most enjoyable factor of being a director has come through meeting so many great players and people involved in softball.

Meritorious Category

Clem Esker

Every year, the town of Red Bud, Illinois seems to get mentioned during Hall of Fame ceremonies and induction speeches. Red Bud this and Red Bud that, has become the normand is always referred to as “The Softball Capital Of Southern Illinois.” Tonight we get to meet the individual responsible for that nametag and the establishment of the USSSA in southern Illinois.

His name is Clem Esker, a founding father of sorts, but one that perhaps would rather be remembered as a pitcher, a coach, a director, and a guy that just loved the game enough to pass down this love to his kids. His oldest, son Tom has been instrumental in keeping softball fever alive in Red Bud, son Tony has put in many years taking care of the diamonds, while son Tim has been involved in umpiring at the facility, while, granddaughter Jackie can be found running the concessions at the complex.

Clem says that we can thank that other softball organization for bringing USSSA softball to Red Bud, as they attempted to bully the locals into holding only their tournaments at the Red Bud diamonds.  Clem stated, “ There was a lot of things going on that we did not like.”

With the help of Bill Mathews and Fred Gould from St. Louis, big name teams began arriving in Red Bud to play USSSAsoftball. Teams like Slinger Foundry from Wisconsin and others from Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, and Kentucky soon found their way to the small southern Illinois community. 

Perhaps the largest crowd ever assembled at the park was when Forest Hills from Rockford was defeated by the local Shamrocks in the first USSSA National Qualifier held at the park. It was estimated that over 2000 people stood 4 deep around the facility to witness softball history that day. After the victory, a donation blanket was passed, that raised over $2000 to help the team with expenses to Baltimore, MD.

Many years ago Clem put Red Bud on the USSSA softball map.  Tonight the USSSA honors one of Red Bud’s finest, by placing him into the Illinois Softball Hall of Fame.

Hall of Honor Team Category

Belleville Budweiser

For a 12-year period from 1982 through 1993, one of the better teams to grace the softball fields of Southern Illinois and the Greater St. Louis area was the team of Belleville Budweiser.
Without doubt, they were perhaps one of the finest Class B teams in all of Illinois as they finished in the top ten rankings of the Great Lakes Division seven times.

In 1984, the Belleville team was the last undefeated team in the divisional tournament held at Rockford, before falling to Powers of Michigan to capture 2nd. In Class B divisional tournament play, the Bud squad finished 6th, in 1989, 5th in 1990, 8th in 1991, 4th in 1992,  and 6th in 1993.  In 1984, the team won the Class B state tournament at Peoria-Pekin, prior to capturing 2nd at the Class A State Tournament at Rockford. In 1987 and 1990 the talented Belleville squad finished 2nd both years at the Class B State tournaments.

This team was loaded with talent, as they presently have six of its members in the Illinois USSSA Hall of Fame. Congratulations to all the members of this fine team.

The following are the members of Belleville Budweiser with Hall of Famers denoted by *.

  • Dennis Albert *
  • Dirk Androff (deceased)*
  • Rick Beatty
  • Jeff Davenport
  • Mark Elbe (deceased)
  • Kevin Elbe
  • Greg Knolhoff
  • Leon Kreher *
  • Mike Kreher *
  • Kevin Mantz
  • Larry Mohme
  • Joe O’Connor
  • Mike O’Connor*
  • Kenny Pour
  • Kevin Pour
  • Ray Pour
  • Al Studt*
  • Mike Werle