BELLEVILLE — Joe Nunez, the fast-pitch softball guru who taught many of the top pitchers in the metro-east, died on Thursday. He was 76.
Nunez was a pitching and hitting instructor for four decades. He worked with young kids and adults alike.
"I started taking lessons from Joe when I was in fourth grade and continued all the way through high school," said Casey (Hunter) Garrett, the former Belleville West and Florida State star who now is the Maroons' coach. "Joe taught me everything I knew about pitching, which led me to be able to earn a free education and be able to play against the top players in the country."
Garrett said Nunez taught her how to tame her high-velocity deliveries.
"When I was a young pitcher just starting out, I threw hard but had absolutely no control," Garrett said. "I had a nickname of 'Head Hunter' because I would hit so many players. I would cry because parents from the other teams would yell to take me out before I hurt someone.
"Joe taught me to never let up and keep throwing hard and the control would eventually come."
Nunez, who was born in East St. Louis and lived in Fairview Heights before he died, was an integral part of Belleville East's softball program and the Lancers' three state championships during former coach Rita Menke's 24-year tenure.
Nunez' daughter, Mona, was a pitcher-first baseman for the Lancers' 1989 state championship squad.
"Joe was my softball mentor for years," Menke said. "Joe shaped me in many ways to be the coach I was for 24 years. He was the behind-the-scenes guy who noticed all of the small things on the field that our opponents were doing wrong and then helped strategize on how to defeat those teams."
Menke said Nunez lived and breathed fast-pitch softball.
"Joe's knowledge of the game could fill a book," Menke said. "Joe and I used to talk about writing a book for softball coaches. He was going to dictate it and I was going to write it.
"He talked about winning the lottery and building an indoor-outdoor softball complex where he would have former players and his daughter, Mona, and son, Mondo, teach the game to all ages."
Former East pitcher Autumn Allen said she met Nunez through her older sister, Shannon, who also took lessons from him.
Allen said she would have quit playing softball after Shannon died in an accident if it wasn't for Nunez.
"I had pretty much made up my mind that I wouldn't play in college," Allen said. "But, then I remembered all of the hard work I had put in at Joe's and how disappointed he and the rest of my coaches and family would have been.
"His advice to continue my pitching career helped me become the person I am today."
Allen ended up having a successful collegiate career at McKendree University. She now gives pitching lessons after Nunez helped her get her start as an instructor by letting her use the facilities in his garage in Fairview Heights.
"Every time I show a young girl how to pitch, memories of Joe showing me how to pitch flood my mind," Autumn Allen said. "He is truly unforgettable and will be missed by many."
Former Collinsville coach Pete Hoffman got to know Nunez through the Kahoks' rivalry with the Lancers.
"I even sent my own daughter, Jenifer, to his garage for private lessons when she was a little kid growing up," Hoffman said. "Those times that Jeni and I spent in that garage talking with Joe about the game we all loved were special times."
Hoffman, co-founder of the Collinsville Extreme summer program, said he coached for one year with Nunez.
"That year that we coached together was one of the best years I have ever experienced in my coaching career," Hoffman said. "Joe knew how to keep the game light, never getting too up or too down. I learned so much from him that I still carry with me today."
East coach Natalie Peters said Nunez traveled far and wide to watch his students play in games.
"He wasn't just a pitching coach in a garage," Peters said. "He went all over Southern Illinois to watch his students young and old pitch and compete against live batters. I would see him one weekend at a 10-and-under tournament talking to a player, and the next weekend he would show up to watch us in a women's tournament.
"This level of commitment and interest in his players is what made him one of a kind."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.