February 8, 2023 Local Stories in and Around St. Joseph, Illinois

Sparks plans on continuing Spartan success

Replacing a legend is not an easy task. However, when the legend is the all-time winningest softball coach in the state of Illinois, that task gets a bit tougher.

Larry Sparks is facing that challenge this season as he takes over for Randy Wolken, who recorded 1,043 wins in his 39-year career at St. Joseph-Ogden, but as Sparks says, that’s not as big of a deal as it appears.

“Nobody really thought that Randy was going to retire, but when it did happen, I thought I’d put my name out there to see what would happen,” Sparks said. “After all, I got my start in coaching with him and I’d been sending Randy players for the better part of 10 years, so I thought the timing was right and things worked out.”

Sparks, who had been coaching the middle school girls’ softball team for the past several years, saw this move as an easy transition, especially since he had coached many of the girls at the junior high level.

“What really helped was knowing that I got my start with him and since I know his coaching style, the transition hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be,” Sparks said.

Sparks cut his teeth at the high school level the past couple of seasons helping other schools around the area.

Sparks has coached under Andi Morgan at Westville and Greg Immke at Heritage.

“I’ve had some experience coaching at the high school level,” he said.

Sparks steps into a Spartan team that is coming off a sectional title and has a good nucleus returning in juniors Bailey Dowling and Hannah Dukeman.

Sparks knows that he has a lot to live up to—but with the team he has coming back, that job might be a bit easier.

“I know that he (Wolken) left the cupboard adequately stocked, and with Bailey and Hannah— they are two great players,” he said.

Sparks admits that numbers are down a little this year, and he would like to see a few more girls join the team, especially at the junior varsity level.

“We’ve got 21 girls out this year, and even though our numbers are low in the underclassmen, we are still going to field a JV team this season,” he said. “Most varsity games have a JV game built in at the end, so we may bring a couple of the varsity girls down that don’t regularly see the field to help in those games.”

Unlike most high schools around the area, SJO has a unique situation with reloading each season.

“Compared to a lot of schools that we play, they may have to rebuild every couple of years, but we are like a small college where if we have two or three girls graduate, there are as many or more ready to step in and fill the void,” Sparks said.

Sparks is no stranger to the St. Joseph and Ogden communities, and besides having coached at the middle school level, is also the coordinator of the Saturday morning youth basketball league in St. Joseph, where boys and girls ages 6-12 can learn the game.

With Sparks stepping into the position, the schedule for this season was already completed, so he didn’t have much say in the matter.

He did admit, however, that it is a challenging schedule chock full of quality opponents.

“What Randy built here (at SJO) was a culture, where everybody expects to win, and they train to win. It’s my job for me and my staff to continue that culture, not only for the current group of girls, but for many years to come,” he said.

The Spartans begin the season next Monday with their first two games on the road at GCMS and Westville (on Tuesday).

SJO will open their home portion of the season next Thursday when they welcome Normal West to town.

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