The most valuable player in the 1975 National Junior College Division I World Series when he played for Meramec (Mo.) Junior College, Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm coach Neil Fiala has fond memories of Grand Junction, Colo., site of the annual junior college national finals.
It was there in 2007 when SWIC’s Fiala was honored as one of the great junior college players of all time as he was chosen as a member of the NJCAA World Series 50 year Golden Anniversary team. And later this spring, Grand Junction will be the spot where Fiala will be inducted as part of the Class of 2016 NJCAA Junior College Coaches Hall of Fame.
One of the top junior college baseball coaches in the nation for over two decades, Fiala, 59, received notice recently that he would be inducted along with three other coaches who will be honored as part of the 2016 JUCO World Series on May 27.
“It’s a great honor and the only thing which would make it even better would be if we (SWIC) were playing in it so that my team could be there to enjoy it with me and my family,” Fiala said. “It’s a great honor but what it means is that I’ve had the good fortune to coach a lot of good baseball players and we’ve won a lot of baseball games. A coach has to be there to teach and to lead, but you have to have the players. I’ve been very blessed in my career to coach a lot of good kids who, like me, love the game of baseball.”
Fiala’s record speaks for itself. In 22 years, Fiala has led SWIC to an outstanding record of 817-445. The Blue Storm has played in 10 region championships and won five of them. Fiala has advanced 185 of his SWIC players on to four-year schools with 44 of those players signing professional contracts.
Fiala has also helped four of his former players reach the Major Leagues. A five-time Great Rivers Athletic Conference and five time NJCAA Region 24 Coach of the Year, Fiala also spent three years coaching at the University of Illinois, a year in the New York Yankees organization, coached the River City Rascals from 2000-02 and was on the coaching staff under former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Danny Cox with the Gateway Grizzlies from 2003 to 2006.
“Looking back at it now, I don’t know how I was able to do the Rascals and be the head coach at SWIC those three years, but at the time I just went with it,” Fiala said. “People ask me if I still love coaching and love the game of baseball. The answer is yes. It’s still the best game in the world.’’
When asked how the game has changed, Fiala said that social media has played a big part in contacting respective recruits and current players.
“The big difference is social media. Before all we had was the phone and I would spend a lot of time talking to kids and even my players,” Fiala said. “Now I type up a group message and send it to 40 guys at once. It’s made it a lot easier.
“But as many professional athletes have found out, social media can also get you into trouble. You have to be careful what you say and who you say it to because it can effect your life. Fortunately, we have been very successful here at SWIC in not only recruiting good baseball players, but good kids as well. We feel having good character is vital to becoming good student athleyes here at SWIC.”
And for Fiala being a good student is a must if you want to play on the Blue Storm baseball team.
“If you aren’t going to come here and put the time in the classroom or if you aren’t going to go to class, then you aren’t goinng to be able to make it at Southwestern Illinois College,” Fiala said. “We are very proud of the high standards of academics we have here at SWIC. If you come here and want to move on to play college baseball at a four-year school after you leave here, you have to do well in the classroom as well.”
Joining Fiala in the Class of 2016 are Barry Davis of Gloucester (Md.) Junior College, Bud Little of Pontiac, Mich. Junior College and Steve Burleson of Kansas City (Kan.) College.