When Rich Well and several others secured sponsorship for their fast-pitch softball team from Guaranteed Air Freight in 1994, they never dreamed a day like Saturday would be possible.
But in just its fourth year of existence, Vandalia Freight found itself playing in the Amateur Softball Association national tournament.
And in 11 of the next 12 years, the club returned, eventually winning national titles in 2005 and 2007.
The team was honored for those accomplishments on Saturday, when it became just the fifth team to be inducted to the Illinois Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.
“All of our people were serious about playing,” Well said. “At that time (1994), you maybe envisioned winning one state tournament, but you never envisioned being inducted to the ASA Hall of Fame.”
Fred Keck, owner of Guaranteed Air Freight, didn’t anticipate the success, either. Well said Keck’s expectations in 1994 were for the team to conduct itself well and recruit the best players it could.
The original group that approached Keck also included Tim Summers, Kenny Roberts, Nick Casey, Mike Schmitt and Chris Trone, and while all those men made a big difference for Vandalia Freight at one point or another, some of the players recruited later on made some huge contributions.
The camaraderie among those star players was cited by several as one of the best things about the club, and Well said that even though some players could have left the team to pursue offers with other clubs, they remained local.
In doing so, the Freight competed against, and sometimes beat, teams of paid players.
“We had a ton of people that had opportunities to get paid to play, and they decided to stay local and stay with our group,” Well said. “Our group was committed to each other, and we played at every level and held our own.”
And while Nick Casey, who is the team’s career leader in home runs, used to say that the team seemed to always be left at the altar when it was unable to win state titles, the team persevered and broke through in 2003.
That year, in Vandalia's fourth appearance in a state title game since 1997, Marty Cloe, the team’s top pitcher, earned the win against Taylorville and will never forget recording the final out.
“I was blessed to be on the mound, and when the guys swarmed me, that was the best time of my life,” he said.
Cloe, who now works as a child care counselor at Kemmerer Village in Assumption and is an assistant softball coach at Pana High School, recorded more than 100 wins in his career and was named to the all-state tournament team four times and earned first-team all-American tournament honors in 1999.
But the way he remembers the 15-season run for the Freight, the team success could not have happened without its batters.
“We always had hitters,” Cloe said. “Even if we got down pitching, I knew we had the hitters to make the game interesting.”
Well, who is now the superintendent of the Vandalia school district and was the National Most Valuable Player in 2005, did admit that there were good hitters on the team, but he said without star pitching, the team could not have had the national success.
A full slate of statistics does not exist, but based on the stats that have been tabulated, Well was the leading hitter with a .408 average and 112 home runs. Casey, the Ramsey High School principal, was right behind with a .364 average and 144 homers.
“Hitting is great to have, but when you go play against the teams at the top level, it starts out with high-quality pitching,” Well said. “We had some outstanding hitters, but when our pitchers got hurt it was a struggle.”
Brian Buscher, a self-described role player for the team and a teacher at VCHS, said the pitching did anchor the team, but he did not discount the value of good hitting.
“It was a great time to play with those guys,” Buscher said. “That was a team built on some really good pitchers and a couple really good hitters.”
His most poignant memory was when the club made several come-from-behind wins to appear in the 1999 national championship game – even though he struck out in his only plate appearance during the tournament.
Vandalia lost the title game to the Texas Flyers of Houston, 7-3, but as Buscher said, “That’s what got us over the hump.”
It took awhile for the highest success to be realized, but it was found in a big way in 2005 when the team won its first national championship.
Of the seven games in the championship series, Vandalia trailed in only one of them.
The Freight scored three runs in the first inning on three extra-base hits against the Merchants from Ashland, Ohio, and Alan Meinhart struck out 10 batters in seven innings during a 4-2 title-game win.
But the journey to the 2007 title was far more impressive.
In the second game of the tourney, Vandalia had to score five runs in the final two innings to beat the Italian Athletic Club from Stockton, Calif., 8-7. That team had two pitchers from the national team, and in total, had seven national team members.
In the final two games, the Freight rallied for comebacks against the New Image club from Montfort, Wis., which was the 2006 national champion. Vandalia won 3-2 in a winner’s bracket matchup, and then beat New Image again after it had won the loser’s bracket.
“My best memory was winning the 2007 national championship," Well said. "Those were big quality teams, and we beat them."
The Freight would play in the national tournament the next two seasons, finishing 13th and third in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Many players were aging into their 40s and had kids that were growing by that time, however, and the team dissolved after most of the players decided to retire.
But it wasn’t without lifelong memories.
“It’s a pretty rare and unique accomplishment that we were able to obtain,” Well said. “When we started in 1994, our goal was just to play ball.”