E. HUSAR: Members of 1974 WIU baseball team hope to rekindle magic this weekend

Posted: May. 2, 2014 12:09 am Updated: Jul. 25, 2014 8:15 am

A bit of magic descended 40 years ago onto the baseball field at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

The 1974 Leathernecks were a diverse collection of transfer students, walk-ons, scholarship players and others who loved baseball.

"We had an incredible year," Conrad "Connie" Kowal, the starting third baseman, recalled.

That squad built a 31-12 record and fell one game short of reaching the NCAA Division II College World Series, suffering an agonizing, 1-0 extra-inning loss in the championship game of the Midwest Regional tournament in Valparaiso, Ind.

"We hit it big one year, and the '74 Western Illinois baseball team to this day is still considered one of the greatest teams in Western's history," Kowal said.

The team hopes to rekindle that magic during a 40th anniversary reunion this weekend at Boyer Stadium. Twenty people associated with the squad will attend WIU's three-game series against Illinois State. Games are slated for 3 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday and noon Sunday.

The 1974 team will be honored before Saturday's game. Kowal said every member of the 1974 starting lineup but one will be there. The starting players will be introduced and take their old positions on the field. Then the current starters will join them.

"During the National Anthem, you'll have the present and the past in the positions they played. It's going to be a neat little look," Kowal said.

Kowal sounds like a promoter for a good reason. After graduating from WIU in 1974, Kowal embarked on a 35-year career as a front-office executive in various sports marketing and management capacities.

He worked for the Chicago Sting soccer team, then joined the Chicago Cubs in marketing and promoting special events for 15 years. He headed the Chicago Enforcers XFL football team, promoted the Chicago Motor Speedway and later was hired as chief marketing officer for the New Orleans Saints.

Kowal now is director of the Libertyville Sports Complex, one of the largest facilities of its kind in Northern Illinois.

When WIU officials decided to promote the 40th anniversary of the 1974 baseball squad, they naturally turned to Kowal, who used his public relations acumen to help pull the reunion together.

Kowal said most his former teammates and their head coach -- Dick Pawlow, who coached WIU baseball for 28 years -- eagerly agreed to come back.

"Some of the guys haven't stepped foot on the field since 1974," Kowal said.

That magical season opened with a tough series of games through the south. WIU came home with an 8-6 record that included two road victories against seventh-ranked Tulane University.

Then WIU got hot, winning 20 of its next 24 games to earn a bid to the NCAA playoffs. The Leathernecks led the nation with 136 stolen bases in 43 games.

The team's star pitcher was Ed Gvazdinskas, who went 13-0 with 12 complete games.

The only Quincy player was Rick Vogel, a pitcher who went 9-3 in 1973 but fell to 2-2 in 1974 while struggling with arm injuries. Vogel signed with the Cubs after his senior year in 1975. He now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and can't attend the reunion.

Kowal said reuniting with his teammates this weekend "means everything" to him.

"We had several guys, like me, who came out of nowhere to take this team from good to great," he said. "In the truest word, we were a team. Everybody contributed, everybody got hot, everybody stuck together, and everybody enjoyed each other's company. It was magic."


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