WillCountyBaseball.org got the chance to talk to Joliet Central Varsity Head Baseball Coach Kevin Fitzgerald on Friday April 15th before his game against Sandburg.
Kevin Fitzgerald stands behind his dugout on Joliet Central’s gorgeous baseball field. It’s the first real warm day of baseball season. The towering colossus of Central’s limestone campus stands behinds us casting its shadow across the grass and infield dirt. To the north is the notorious Joliet Correctional Center built with that same limestone. To the South is the Will County Jail. To the West is Joliet’s old, unwritten borderline – the Des Plaines River. To the East is Fitzgerald’s outreach.
East side baseball in Joliet is legendary. The East Side and the areas bordering New Lenox have traditionally produced some of Will County’s best baseball talent. Fitzgerald want his players to appreciate that tradition and bring a mentally tough attitude to his program.
“I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to work with our guys,” Fitzgerald says. “We talk about that. When we were growing up, and still to this day, when people think of the East Side what do they think of? They think of blue collar people who work hard for what they have. Be that guy. When we’re on the field be that guy. Have the East Side mentality. Gotta go at it.”
Public school coaches don’t always have the luxury of streamlining their rosters with baseball lifers. They take what the district zones. Sports such as basketball and soccer have garnered large interest from Central’s students. The enrollment is just over 3,200, and represents Joliet’s increasingly diverse community with a student body that is 20 percent white, 24 percent African-American, and 53 percent Hispanic.
“I think demographics have changed a lot since the 80s. It has really bolstered soccer in the area,” says Fitzgerald. A lot of athletes tried out for soccer this year at Central. Fitzgerald says he gets about 35-40 players for baseball tryouts.
Part of Fitzgerald’s strategy to strengthen a baseball tradition at Central is his winter youth camp. He is really excited about the interest. “We’ve held a youth camp every year for the last three years. We’ve gotten 170 kids signed up. It’s amazing. I think just being able to do that is getting more interest from kids that play other sports. That’s who you’re fighting for. We have a lot kids that play multiple sports.”
The old in-house leagues on the East Side like Ingalls Park and Belmont Park have been cannibalized by travel baseball. Travel teams cultivate lots of talented players, and transform many multi-sport athletes into year round baseball specialists. This helps and hurts Fitzgerald’s plans for his Central program.
“I only have two or three kids that play travel ball. I think that’s one thing that we kind of benefit from. Because we have guys that don’t play a lot of travel ball they don’t come in tired. They don’t come in sick of the game of baseball. They come in kind of eager to learn more because they don’t know everything.”
Fitzgerald is excited about 2016 and his shortstop Luke DeBenedetti who plans on staying in town at Joliet Junior College’s excellent program. “He’s probably the best shortstop in the area,” he says. Fitzgerald also mentions Tyler Lawson as his main starter, and sophomore outfielder Johnny Slattery as standouts for his 2016 squad.
Coach Fitzgerald says that building his program and winning baseball is all about consistency. Players in the Joliet area should know that Joliet Central has a coach eager to get you on his team and be part of building something as solid as all those limestone buildings dotting Joliet’s old downtown.