Former MLB pitcher Randy Wells talks about SWIC coach's influence
Every fall and spring for the past 25 years, Southwestern Illinois College baseball coach Neil Fiala has done his best to put together a successful Blue Storm team.
On Saturday, a large turnout of fans that included several former players came out to say thank you and watch as the Blue Storm split a doubleheader with Olney Central College in Fiala's final home appearance as SWIC's head coach.
A member of five Hall of Fames, including the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame, Fiala announced earlier this spring that the 2018 season would be his last. The decision came after the SWIC board of trustees voted to cut 13 more administrators from the college's payroll, including Fiala's position as an assistant athletic director.
On Saturday, after dropping the first game 11-8, the Blue Storm won the nightcap 8-6 in their regular-season finale. The win lifts SWIC to 27-18 heading into the postseason tournament, which begins next week. It also gives Fiala a total of 890 wins at SWIC.
Following the second game, Fiala posed for one final team picture. Then his players showered him with ice-cold water as he answered questions from the media.
"The only difference between this year and any other is that before, I could tell you what I would be doing after July 1. This year, it's up in the air," a soaking-wet Fiala said. "It's been a tremendous 25 years, and I've enjoyed each year of coaching baseball here.
"All I know is that I've coached over 2,500 baseball games in my career. If I am supposed to remain in baseball, I will be thrilled. If I'm not supposed to be in baseball any longer, I will also be thrilled because it's meant for me to go on and do something else in life."
Among those on hand for Fiala's final game were former player and former assistant coach at SWIC Rob Brown and several members of the Waterloo Buds Mon-Clair League baseball team, including current Waterloo High School head coach Mark Vogel.
In the Blue Storm dugout in his first year as an assistant coach is former major league pitcher Randy Wells. A SWIC standout during the 2001-2002 season, Wells went on to pitch several several seasons in the big leagues.
Wells said Fiala had a major impact on his career from the start.
"There are a lot of things he (Fiala) helped me with. I think the main one was to get me to focus in and getting ready and focusing in on what I needed to do in order to play at that level," Wells said. "This program at SWIC given a lot of area high school players the opportunity to further their baseball careers, get an education and get on to lead productive lives.
"There have have been many players who have come through this program who have gone on to sign professional contracts, and so many more who have gone on to play at four year schools. Coach Fiala really cares about the kids who are in his program."
The Blue Storm will know their postseason fate Sunday, when the final regular-season games are completed. Fiala said he expects his team to be anywhere from a No. 5 seed to a No. 7 seed. First-round pairings will be announced Monday.