Rallying for 'Coach Kow'
In a perfect world teenagers would not be issued a crash course in dealing with catastrophic illness. It is imperfect, though, and their youthful resilience may be just the thing to help people through the ordeal.
The girls on the Naperville Diamonds 16-Under College Exposure softball team have banded together to support assistant coach Scott Kowalczyk, who for years has battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma. After undergoing a bone-marrow transplant on Sept. 20, the Oswego resident is in the midst of a minimum 100-day hotel stay in Oak Brook, quarantined to avoid infection.
"It's very hard without him. My best friend is his daughter (Katie) and I think sometimes at tournaments we kind of struggle without having him there because he's so much fun to have around," said Mirabella Kugelberg, a junior at St. Francis who pitches and plays first base.
"It's been really hard for the whole team, especially for Katie and I because we spend so much time with him, and he really is like my second dad," she said.
Her actual father, Bill Kugelberg, is the Diamonds' coach. He'd known Kowalczyk and his wife, Lisa, since elementary school. They all attended Conant High School but hadn't maintained contact for 30 years until bumping into each other on the softball circuit six years ago. After that season Katie joined the Diamonds' 11U team with "Coach Kow" coming aboard as an assistant coach.
By then, Kowalczyk already had his first round of chemotherapy treatments under his belt to battle the lymphoma, which has since returned twice. The past two years the cancer has proved tenacious, with the bone marrow transplant the most recent attempt to stem it.
"If you were to ask me I just think he's sick and tired of being sick," Bill Kugelberg said. "He wants to get on with his life. He wants to get back to the normal routine that you and I don't think about."
As the disease has persisted so too have fundraising efforts on behalf of Kowalczyk's family of four, including nearly 1 million hotel "points" (the hotel is not covered by insurance and a nightly stay is worth 15,000 points, Kugelberg said) and thousands of dollars through a Go Fund Me account, Karing for the Kows, which recently was reissued.
In what unfortunately is a second annual fundraiser, on Dec. 1 Karing for the Kows will host an event at Fox Bowl in Wheaton. About 65 of the 200 tickets have been sold. The ticket covers bowling, pizza and soft drinks. A 50-50 raffle and live and silent auctions are other means to donate.
"It was insane, it was so much fun," Mirabella Kugelberg said of last year's event, which she said raised $17,000.
Information is available on an eventbrite.com page or by reaching Bill Kugelberg at BillKMCG@gmail.com or (630) 926-2534.
Too bad Kowalczyk himself can't attend. He sounds like a hoot.
"He's the loudest one in the dugout and the loudest one just in general, and he's just such a great motivation for the team," Mirabella said. "He's kind of the comical person of the entire group, so if anyone's feeling down he's the only person who can get us up."
But Kowalczyk is not merely softball's version of Max Patkin or Rick "Myron Noodleman" Hader.
"He's a really good coach," said Naperville North sophomore Cami Chelich, who pitches and plays third base and outfield.
"He is very patient and he knows a sense of direction in softball so if you do something wrong he's not going to yell at you, but he'll give you what he knows. He never yells or gets frustrated. He's very nice, and he knows how to start off a game when we're in tournaments," she said.
Bill Kugelberg was kind of concerned about that in a different light before a Sept. 8 tournament game in Aurora. Eight days before the bone marrow transplant Lisa Kowalczyk brought her husband to the game and the couple sat just beyond the outfield fence. When Kugelberg told the Diamonds Kowalczyk was there they sprinted out to see him.
"I don't know if it was a good idea because it was about five minutes before the game and they were back in the dugout crying. But we ended up winning 4-0 against a really good team out of Wisconsin," he said.
Outfielder Allison Pustelnik, a Downers Grove North junior, seems mature beyond her years assessing these matters. Perhaps tutoring students and participating in wellness clubs at school has elevated her thinking.
"I've known Coach Kow and I've known Katie for two years now and I've seen the ups and downs," Pustelnik said. "When I first came onto the team he was doing great, coaching first base for us, was at practice. Things have gotten worse, obviously, but I'm really impressed by Katie, his daughter. She's so strong and she's still able to come to softball every day and she comes with a smile on her face even with the things that her dad is going through. I just really would like to support her."
The Dec. 1 event is one way to do that.
"Every little thing counts," Pustelnik said. "Even if you think it's minuscule it still has a huge effect. In hard times like this I think the biggest thing is to come together and stay strong."
Make no mistake, IC Catholic Prep boys basketball coach T.J. Tyrrell and Montini boys basketball coach Bob Lozano are excited that their schools' football teams are playing for state championships this weekend.
It still doesn't do them any favors.
Lacking three probable starters, two other football players targeted for the varsity rotation, plus taking an injury, ICCP was down to eight players for its tournament games at Manteno. On Tuesday the Knights started warmups with five players and the opponent, Manteno, kindly waited for three more to arrive from the sophomore game.
Junior Ryan Wojtalewicz played every minute of ICCP's first two games. Knights coaches have had to jump in at practice in order to go 5-on-5.
"It's been an interesting start," Tyrrell said.
Same for Montini, which lacks two starters and up to four other players on the Broncos' long football run.
Lozano started three sophomores in his season opener Tuesday against West Chicago. One of them, previously varsity-tested Kai Evans, scored 25 points in a 61-57 win.
Montini has yet to go full-court in practice due to numbers. Some Broncos players transition nightly from football to basketball.
Lozano will take it.
"It's a good thing," he said, "because we're still playing football."
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