Thomas Wolken Q-n-A

Thomas Wolken was known for his prolific power while playing for coach Jon Donovan’s Rantoul baseball club. The 2015 grad flashed some of that juice in college, helping the Kankakee Community College baseball team win the program’s first-ever national championship June 2. During the Cavaliers’ NJCAA Division II World Series run, the lefty hit a moonshot, one that fans who have been watching games there for 40 years had never seen before. Sports editor Zack Carpenter caught up with the national champion last week:

ZC: Winning the first national title in KCC baseball program history, describe that feeling of winning that title and being able to run out onto the field with your teammates and mob them.

TW: It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life. To be honest, I was speechless. I didn’t know what to do. I had never won a game or had a season quite like we did. It was just shock and awe, basically, and relieved. That was our goal once we made it to the World Series. When we started off the year, our goal was to win the region. We always wanted to win the World Series, but that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the year, so it was really great to know we accomplished our goal and then exceeded it tenfold.

Talking with Kyle (Flessner), it was a bit of a relief because you lose that first game then you have to win six games in six days. Did you guys feel you were losing a bit of confidence or getting some nervousness after that first loss because you didn’t want to go two-and-out?

After that first game, we were really down, but we knew we had our ace going the next day. We knew we had a very good chance at winning that game. We went out the very next day, and our bats came alive. After that, we were like, “All right, we got this. We can stay alive.” Yeah, after that first game you get a little nervous, but I wasn’t too nervous.

After playing so many games in so many days, did you feel like you guys were running on fumes at that point?

Yeah. Just the sheer adrenaline of being in a national championship game is what got us through that because all of us were beat. After four games, we were all pretty tired, but with the adrenaline knowing what was at stake is what got us through it. It would’ve sucked to make it all the way to the national championship game and lost.

I know the 2009 KCC season is the one coach (Todd) Post looked at and gauged following seasons’ success by, but this season vaults to the top of the list. Can you take me through this, what would probably be called a magical season?

Coming into the year, we knew we were going to be solid. We knew we had a pretty good chance at being one of the better teams in KCC history, but, to be honest, we just stayed consistent all year long. We never had one of those days where we had seven or eight errors or didn’t pitch really well. And if we did, we had something to back it up. I wouldn’t say we were a five-star team, but we all collaborated a little bit, and that’s what helped us win the title.

And do you think going 54-11-1 and having that many wins and having that experience/success throughout the season is why you guys were able to stay so confident and not get rattled?

Throughout the year, we had hardly every lost to a ranked team. I think we only took one or two “L’s” the whole year to ranked teams, so we knew we had the capability of playing with those guys. We just knew we had to go out and play our game, which we had been doing for 50-some games before that. So we knew what we had to do. Knowing how to win those games really helps when you’re in the World Series.

Did you feel like there was a specific turnaround or specific moment during the postseason run where, looking back, you guys were like, “That’s probably the turning point.”

The first game of the region championship, we got absolutely spanked. After that game, everyone came out, for lack of a better word, pissed off. That’s when we really were like, “We’re not losing like that ever again. We’re not losing again, and if we do, we’re going down swinging.” I would say that’s the point in the postseason we knew everything started to click.

Did you guys call a team meeting or anything?

Oh yeah. All the captains on the team, me and Kyle called a meeting saying, “We’re better than this. We’ve got to play up to our game.” And evidently, up to our game was winning a national championship.

So you and Kyle called the meeting?

Yeah. I’d say me, Kyle and a few other guys — Alex Mandeville, Chase Gadau, Devin Peters — I guess you’d call us the captains of the team. We just called a meeting after that game and were like, “Alright guys. We’ve got to get this stuff together here, or we’ll be going home.” And I think that’s really when it started clicking.

How heated did that meeting get?

Everyone was mad. Took a really bad loss, so there were a few choice words getting thrown around. But here’s the thing, we never went at each other. We never blamed a single player for what happened. It was always just, as a group we had to do better than what we were doing.

You suffered a hairline fracture in your left fibula (April 21). And this is going to sound like a dumb question, but how difficult was it playing through that?

Probably one of the most excruciating pains I’ve ever played through. It was not fun. One to 10 (on the pain scale), it was a 12.

During the World Series, did you think about the pain? Or were you just running on pure adrenaline at that point?

My leg stopped bothering me a whole bunch just because of the adrenaline, but towards the end of the first UConn Avery Point game, I had to score on a double from first. After that, it was very painful, but I guess adrenaline took over the whole game. I was a little slower, but I could still do everything I had been doing the whole year.

Apparently, it didn’t hurt your ability to hit moonshots. I keep hearing about this double off the scoreboard that was hit about 450 feet (in the second game of the World Series).

That was the farthest ball I ever hit, and it didn’t go out. I was not very happy on second base. It was about 50 feet up in center field, and, evidently, that’s not a home run. To be honest with you, I think hitting that in the second game out was kind of a curse for me. Because now everyone knew I could hit a ball that hard and hit one that far, and I went like 0 for my next 13. And I ended up batting .167 going into the national championship game. I look back on it, yeah, it was the farthest ball I ever hit, but I look back on how it affected my at-bats going forward. And it was not pretty, but ended up getting the job done in the national championship game, and that’s all that matters.

When they started pitching around you, did you start chasing pitches you shouldn’t have and started getting frustrated?

Yeah. When you hit a ball that far off the wall, you’re like, come on, I’ve got to hit at least one home run. I hit a ball that hard, I can pull one down the line 300. And when I did that, I started flying out and rolling over. It just wasn’t good, so the national championship game I had a different approach just trying to get base hits.

Do you have any favorite memories on your two collegiate seasons?

I wouldn’t necessarily say any favorite memories. Just so many of the people I met up there. So many best friends, lifelong friends, I wouldn’t expect to even be close to, and I talk to them every day still. And that’s my favorite memory, just the memory of playing with those guys and making new friends up there — basically meeting brothers.

Speaking of memories, let me take you back two or three years when you were playing for Rantoul. Looking back, do any games or memories come to mind?

The beginning of my career at Rantoul, we knew how to win. We played hard, and I’ve got to give it to coach (Jon) Donovan. He ran the practices and ran the program like a college program. It wasn’t like a high school program, and he based everything out of his practices off coach Post. So that really helped me out going into my KCC career because I knew what was expected. I knew (Post) would get on me a little bit, but I knew that was part of it. I respected that. I look back on my Rantoul career, and it really helped me out a lot in my collegiate career.

What was it like playing for coach Donovan?

Playing for coach Donovan was basically like playing for a more calm coach Post. You knew what was expected, and if you did it wrong, he was going to let you know. I wouldn’t have wanted to have it any other way.

Have you been able to follow the program from afar this year or the past couple years?

Yeah, actually, I had a couple days where I got off, and I was able to come down to help some of the hitters with their swings. I’ve always kept close. Me and coach Donovan talk pretty frequently — just about little things — and he’s helped me a lot. I like to look back on the program and check up on the guys and help them out any way I can.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of the program?

I didn’t really get to know the underclassmen very well. But I know there’s potential there. They’ve just got to work hard. It’s doable. You’ve just got to put in the hard work. For those three classes, I’d say they need to hit the weight room because they’re a little small. You’ve got to just grow as a player. It’s not like Little League. Everybody’s getting better, so you’ve got to get better as well. … If I had the swing I have now, as a high school player I would’ve been a 10 times better player just because I knew how to adjust to the game. And that’s what I was trying to get them to do (when I’ve worked with the players). You’ve got to know what you’re doing at the plate, and when I went down there, I just felt like they didn’t know.

That was one of the things coach Donovan was frustrated with all year was a lack of focus and aggressiveness.

We get taught in college, and I know coach Donovan teaches this, that hitting is a controlled violent motion. You’ve got to know what to swing at, but when you do, you swing out of your shoes. But you swing under control out of your shoes.

What was it like playing with Flessner? What did he bring to the table?

He brought consistent pitching and was going to hit the strike zone a lot with pretty good offspeed pitches. And we knew we could rely on him to get at least five innings most of the time. He more impacted the dugout and how the team acted because he was always calm and didn’t get rattled very much. I think that’s where Fless helped the most in high school and in college.

I heard you’re heading off to the University of Illinois (majoring in crop sciences). What’s next for you? Any chance of trying out for the baseball team?

No. I think I’m going to focus on academics. I think I’m going to hang it up for my collegiate career. I’ll still play on Sundays in (the Eastern Illinois League, playing for the Royal Giants), but nothing too competitive anymore. I just don’t feel like dedicating that much time and sacrificing my grades.

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZCarp11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Baseball, Sports

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