|Former head baseball coach Jim Miller (left) and current head coach John Vodenlich.
UW-Whitewater athletics file photo
By Austin Walthers
GRAND CHUTE, Wis. - The 2016 UW-Whitewater baseball team has found inspiration from dedicating its season to lifelong Warhawk enthusiast, former coach and mentor, Jim Miller who passed away on March 9.
Miller lost his 2-year battle with cancer weeks before the Warhawk baseball season began. He coached current head coach John Vodenlich from 1989-1992 and Vodenlich became an All-American in ’91 and ’92.
“He was the most sincere man I have ever met,” Vodenlich said. “He always had time for you. If you wanted to talk, he had time to listen. A combination of his sincerity and his personality were the things that were contagious.”
Vodenlich took over the baseball team in 2004 after Miller served as the head ball coach from 1987-03.
Miller continued to stick around the program, becoming really close to the team, serving as the special assistant to the athletic director. In 2009, Whitewater was granted permission to change its field name to Prucha Field at James B. Miller Stadium.
When the news came of his passing, the team knew they had to dedicate their season to a man who was known as “Mr. Whitewater.” The Warhawks acted by adding his initials to their hats.
“It was my decision,” Vodelenlich said. “He was my coach, my mentor and most importantly we became very good friends and he and his wife were like a mom and dad to me.”
The opening game of the season was the first Vodenlich was ever apart of in the Whitewater program without Miller around and it happened to be his father’s birthday who he lost years ago.
“It was St. Patty’s day and my dad was born on St. Patty’s day,” Vodenlich said. “I don’t know if I call it ironic or strange, but it was a tough transition period.”
|The Warhawks has had Jim Miller's initials on their hats all season in honor of his memory.
d3photography by Steve Frommell
The bizarre season started taking place when the Warhawks went on their spring trip and won all nine games for the first time since 2005.
“Statistically this was the first time we went undefeated since I was coaching,” Vodenlich said.
Throughout the season Vodenlich knew Miller has been with the team. He and his coaching staff talk about him on a daily basis.
“How we go about our business is really a reflection of the upbringing we’ve had,” Vodenlich said.
Miller was not only an influence on the field, but he was a big part of off field responsibilities.
“When we’re weeks late on getting out our golf outing information he would’ve always done that, he would have all the apparel set out and run our concession stands,” Vodenlich said. “Even if he wasn’t on the road with us, we would always have a phone call and talk about the game.”
More magic started to happen after a second place finish in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season and losing to UW-La Crosse in the tournament as they moved to the Central Region as the number one seed.
Whitewater lost its third round game to the number fifth seed Rose-Hulman to set a matchup with Washington University.
Both teams featured a lot of offense in the first eight innings, but the game went into extra innings with the score 8-8. Five innings went by without a run until freshman Cal Aldridge hit a solo shot in the 14th which ended up being the deciding factor to set up a rematch with Rose-Hulman.
As a freshman, Aldridge has heard many stories about Miller and likes the fact they are dedicating this season to him.
”He [Miller] was the biggest Warhawk anyone could ever be,” Aldridge said. “He is who everyone would look up to and the biggest supporter on campus.”
|Jim Miller and his wife, Carol, following the retirement of his jersey on April 26, 2015.
UW-Whitewater athletics file photo by Craig Schneider
Aldridge said it was a great moment to be involved in when they scored in extra innings to take the lead and he found a great pitch to hit out.
“We were doing whatever could to get runs across and I happened to be the one to get up and get the last one,” Aldridge said. “I was looking for a pitch away and hit it hard.”
Vodenlich remembers two occasions in recent history when they played long inning games, but never in a Regional situation.
“What a great game,” Vodenlich said. “Everyone on the roster was in except one guy and we ended up prevailing. Like our announcer said, ‘good conquers evil again’.”
The Warhawks defeated Rose-Hulman twice from a shutout in the first game and a 5-3 victory in the second on May 21 to secure a spot back in the Division III Baseball Championships and Vodenlich is excited to be back.
“We love Appleton, it’s like a home park for us,” Vodenlich said. “I’ve been here a lot and I’m fortunate to be very welcomed by everyone involved in Appleton and it’s a cool part of the state and we feel at home here.”
Whitewater lost its opening round game to Keystone 5-3 to put them in the elimination bracket, but they were just in that situation last weekend in Regionals and know Jim Miller is with them.
“We obviously wished we could play tomorrow, but the format was changed,” Vodenlich said. “So we’re going to be coming back and excited to play again.”
Aldridge said the team is still focused on doing whatever it takes to win it all for Miller.
“We feel like he’s played a huge role in us getting here,” Aldridge said. “We are going to do whatever we can to win it all for him.”