Leo Kalinowski was beaming with pride last week while he gave a brief tour of the Robert D. Goodman Softball Field on the Madison Area Technical College campus.
The bells and whistles are abundant at the year-old facility, from its spacious locker room to its synthetic playing surface.
The on-the-field product is just as superb for the WolfPack, who begin play today in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series at Traceway Park in Clinton, Mississippi. MATC (49-8) is the No. 11 seed in the 16-team field and opens vs. Cowley (Kan.) Community College (39-14).
It’s another big step for a program that has been trending upward under Kalinowski, who led MATC to three consecutive NJCAA baseball championships from 1995-97.
The WolfPack fell one victory short of reaching the World Series in 2017, leaving the returning players feeling like they had some unfinished business. That message was heard loud and clear by a talented group of newcomers that arrived in the fall.
“We didn’t feel pressure because we felt confident in each other and in ourselves,” said Dany Gumz, a freshman from Marshall, “but we wanted to make sure we keep that trend going.”
Four years after the program made the jump from club status to intercollegiate athletics in 2007, the WolfPack were winless in Kalinowski’s debut season. But MATC has followed up that 0-33 season in 2011 by increasing its win total every season under Kalinowski, going from 0 to 14 to 15 to 22 to 33 to 36 to 37 and now to 49.
Kalinowski admits he was far from an expert on softball when he took over, but he viewed the rebuilding project as a new and exciting challenge. His first order of business was to hire Mike Bridge and Jim Wickert, both of whom have strong ties to the area and impressive softball coaching resumes, as assistants.
Seven years later, Bridge and Wickert are still on Kalinowski’s staff.
“It’s just been rewarding to see the success the players are having,” Kalinowski said. “It’s about them, it’s not about us.”
Ali Braddock, a sophomore from Waukesha, said one of Kalinowski’s strengths is how well he relates to players.
“He’s pretty laid back, but he knows when to be serious at the right times,” she said. “He’ll be hard on us at the right times and he knows when to have fun.”
The players, meanwhile, have developed their own chemistry on and off the field.
“We keep the drama to a minimum,” said Alli Walker, a freshman pitcher from Portage. “We all get along. We all hang out, do our homework together and come to practice and work every day.”
Walker, who is 14-3 with a 1.25 ERA, leads a pitching staff that also includes two other athletes from the area. Mackenzie Terrill (Milton) is 9-0 with a 2.07 ERA, while Emily Wiederholt (Cuba City) is 12-2 with a 2.24 ERA.
Second baseman Ashley Kniesel of Waterloo and first baseman Bre Feiler of Cottage Grove are regulars in the WolfPack lineup.
So is Gumz, who is hitting .467 with four homers, 37 RBIs and a team-best .771 slugging percentage.
It’s been a bittersweet season for Gumz, who graduated from Marshall in 2016 and took last season off so she could care for her grandmother.
Gumz spent eight months living with Judy Jacob, who had suffered two heart attacks. She died last June.
“It was definitely a difficult season because she was one of my biggest supporters,” Gumz said. “That made it extra hard to come back in because I was really sad, but she’d want me to be here.
“This was just an escape from everything and I’ve had the greatest teammates and coaches to help me get through it. They have my back all the time.”