LA CROSSE, Wisc. – Some call them diehards. Some call them loyalists. Some call them movers and shakers. They’re the backbone of any worthy cause who roll up their sleeves and get the job done.
And when it comes to men’s fastpitch, Ronn Kopp, Loren Lathrop and Bud Olson fit those labels perfectly.
While many have long since given up, these three men continue the mission to revive the sport in Wisconsin. Maybe that’s why the state is the North American Fastpitch Association’s (NAFA) leader in team registration within the organization.
Kopp is the NAFA president and Lathrop a vice president. Both have been with the organization since its inception in 1993. They run NAFA Wisconsin affairs, conduct tournaments and leagues, and help run one of the most successful national tournaments in the sport: the NAFA World Series.
No doubt, they are true warriors.
Though Olson isn’t a NAFA official, he’s leading an admirable effort to revive fastpitch in the La Crosse area: he runs a team, he recruits younger players and helps form leagues, he encourages city officials to support fastpitch, and he will be hosting the NAFA state tournament for the next three years.
If every state had this type of commitment, the sport would be in much better shape.
Olson grew up on a Wisconsin farm, attended a country school where he began playing fastpitch in first grade. At 14 he was playing in a 4-H league. By 15 his burgeoning talent landed him a spot on the Sioux Creek Farmers team in a men’s league.
“I got my first hit when I was 10 against Bob Davis one of the top pitchers in the Barron County traveling League,” said Olson. “I made Chetek’s traveling team as a 16-year-old shortstop. When our 4-H team entered the Sand Creek Sunday Night league, I was playing four nights a week.”
Still a teen, Olson was named the starting shortstop for the Barron County All-Stars in an exhibition game against a team from Eau Claire.
“That was one of my biggest thrills,” Olson said. “Eau Claire was so far away and such a big town; that’s all I needed to be impressed. Some years later I learned more about the team we played and their pitcher. It was Peter’s Meats and Tex Brooks.” (One of Wisconsin’s greatest teams and elite pitchers of the 1960s and ’70s.)
With his playing days largely a memory now, Olson has turned his attention to managing and coaching, promoting and helping to revive the sport in his part of Wisconsin – the southwest corridor that includes La Crosse.
Who was influential in getting you started in fastpitch? My idol was Mickey Mantle. My hero was my mom. My dad was a good farmer and a hard worker, but he wasn’t into athletics. But I had the best coach on the farm in my mom. She would garden, milk cows, cook meals, and many times help with fieldwork. And if there was still light at the end of the day she would throw batting practice or hit me ground balls or fly balls. And I had to get it right or she would come out and show me.
What is fastpitch like in the La Crosse area now? We have nine teams in the Dairyland league. All are located north of La Crosse and include animal house (La Crosse), Arctic Springs of Galesville, CJ’s of Whitehall, East End Bar of Independence, Features of Holman, Nick’s Bar of West Salem, Pleasantville Lions, Sheri’s Bar of Whitehall, and Weiner’s Bar of at Ettrick.
Any other leagues and teams playing in the area? There are seven teams in the Eau Claire league that play on historic Gelein Field at Carson Park. Our team, Fun Dye Factory, is made up of players from the surrounding area who played with us while going to school in La Crosse. Two teams come from out of town, Harm’s Way of Bloomer, Sweeney’s Bar of Chippewa Falls, and four teams from Eau Claire – Julson Auto, Ray’s Place, Rock & Tait, and Wigwam Tavern.
What is being done to recruit younger players? I hope to add another team of young, inexperienced players this summer. I have a pitcher that will be a good fit for players learning the game. All we have to do is find players. Every team in our league needs and encourages young players to give fast pitch a try.
Wisconsin is known for small-town fastpitch. Any towns that stand out? There is a little town called Eastman that is still like things used to be. They have their own fast pitch league.
It’s surrounded by farms and it’s a place where a 12-year-old takes his glove and hopes the team is short because some player (farmer) has hay down and can’t make the game,” Olson said. “It’s a place where a spectator over 50 might be asked to fill in. It’s one of Wisconsin’s field of dreams, where old ballplayers careers Never end and a young boy’s dream is ready to begin. It’s the 1950s and 60s that never left town.”
Any young pitchers in your area? Using under the age of 40 as young, Matt Stuhr is the best in our area. He’s about 30. He’s put in the time and makes a point of playing somewhere nearly every weekend. Nothing comes before softball and he has progressed to being competitive at the NAFA AA level. T.J. Nereng, about the same age as Stuhr, throws for our Eau Claire league team. He can be very good; he has a good up, a real good down and mixes speeds better than anyone around here his age.
We also have Ethan Ringlien who throws strikes and has good velocity and a great attitude. I expect him to be around for quite some time. I just hope it’s in our area. Ethan Giese I thought was on his way to being an elite talent. The last couple of years he appears to have leveled off. One thing that might have distracted him was becoming manager of his team. Unfortunately, managing has become a full-time job with headaches guaranteed.
It’s in my opinion that doing both has hurt him. At 26 years of age, he has a lot of time to be a good pitcher. He can wait on managing until pitching makes him goofy enough to start doing it.
La Crosse will be hosting NAFA state tournaments, what’s that in entail? An agreement was reached for La Crosse to host the NAFA state tournament the next three years. In addition, NAFA wishes to begin an open tournament to be held annually the fourth weekend in June, starting this summer. Our tournament format is 16 teams of four pools.
The top two teams in each pool move to the championship single elimination tournament. The remaining teams have a consolation single elimination of their own. All teams are guaranteed a minimum of four games. This year’s date for the open is June 23-25.
Have you gotten support to help your efforts? It’s been very productive. We met with the Park and Recreation Department and the Business and Convention Bureau. Those two organizations give me hope that fastpitch has an opportunity to make a comeback in the southwest corner of Wisconsin.
Reviving fastpitch can’t be done alone. Who stands out in helping you? For years I was more or less floundering around with hopes but no real plan other than to get young men in the area introduced to the game. Two years ago I met two young men whose employment could benefit fastpitch. If it takes root in La Crosse again, the time and effort contributed by Jerod Flick of the La Crosse Park and Recreation Department, and Jeremiah Burish of the Business and Convention Bureau will be largely responsible due to their contacts and organization.
“Progress is being made faster than ever before,” Olson said.
Do former players lend a hand? I have a group of friends with fastpitch backgrounds. We meet a couple of times a month over the winter. If we had an official name, it would be something like, “Charter Members of La Crosse Fastpitch.” We are well diversified. Fran Formanek, a former catcher is now on the city council. Bill Tauscher, a former teammate, and Roger Young are officers of the VFW Post 52. That all helps.
“Bud Loomis is the best event coordinator and fundraiser in Wisconsin,” Olson said. “Every year he is the headman and backbone of our Old Timers Fastpitch Reunion. My good friend Mike Geary is a member of the Wisconsin’s ASA Hall of Fame and undeniably the best pitcher to come out of La Crosse. All of these men have a strong affection for fastpitch, share their thoughts and ideas, and willingly pitch in in anyway they can to help.”
Any other cities or towns hosting tournaments in 2017? Pigeon Falls has a Memorial Day weekend tournament and Eastman, Pleasantville, and a Whalen, Minnesota have Fourth of July tournaments. Whitehall has its Beef and Dairy Days tournament, August 18-20, and we will have the La Crosse Open Classic, June 23-25.
Olson, 72, has given a tremendous amount time and effort, energy and commitment to the sport for nearly 60 years. Such dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed – locally or nationally.
“The game and those accomplishments are treasured memories that mean so much to me,” Olson said.