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Brian Francis | | May 27, 2014

Francis: Whitewater's Vodenlich is about more than numbers

  Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach John Vodenlich could earn career win No. 402 on Tuesday.

APPLETON, Wis. -- Baseball always has been a numbers game. Baseball fans love numbers. They make for good headlines, stories, water cooler talk, and for fans to discuss. But Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach John Vodenlich looks beyond the milestones, only focusing on what lies ahead.

Taking a peek beneath Vodenlich’s accomplishments and resume of accolades that could stretch further than Casey Power’s solo shot against St. Thomas (Minn.); we find an inspiring story of a man and family tradition of teaching, coaching, and creating a framework of helping others flourish.

The Vodenlich tale begins in the former Yugoslavia, in which his parents Alex “Sasha” and Blazenka first met while training for the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy. Blazenka had won national titles in cross country skiing, and Sasha was asked to coach the Olympic team. Yugoslavia sent just 17 athletes to Cortina (12 men, 5 women), with Blazenka a part of the cross country ski team – along with her coach/husband Sasha – taking 36th place in the 10K at 46:28 and ninth place in the 3x5 relay.

During the Second World War, Yugoslavia was invaded by Axis powers in 1941 and a communist government established in 1946. Following the 1956 Winter Olympics, Sasha traveled to free western countries, and in typical coaching fashion, could not help but notice the distinct advantages with their superior athletic equipment and facilities. 

In returning home he would ask for similar equipment for his program, repeatedly shutdown being told these are “foolish western ideas.” Sasha once asked for just 20 basketballs and was told that it was a ridiculous request and he only needed one for his 15 player team. In 1957, Vodenlich was tipped from a friend that the communist regime would be questioning him following the school year in regards to his communication with the west.

“And then what happened is my dad and mom staged a breakup,” John Vodenlich continues, “and a couple days later he left with his brother, my uncle Ivan. And the reason they staged it, if [the government] thought they were still together she probably wouldn’t have been able to travel around for events.”

At 2:30 a.m., Sasha and Ivan boarded a train that sent them 100 miles towards the Austrian border. The train got the men within five miles before trekking through the Alps and into Austria, before finally settling in Germany. Back in Yugoslavia, Blazenka was frequently questioned of his whereabouts, but always repeated they had broken up and that he just left.

“It was all predicated on her making it back to the European championships, which she did,” John Vodenlich said. “And then she went to compete at the European championships and he met her at the train, had a car waiting and grabbed her and they defected and end up going to Germany.”

Fluent in German, Sasha worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army while waiting on U.S. citizenship papers. Befriending army captain George Deagly, they were able to get in the United States Escape Program and eventually were allowed to come to the west.

“So they get the right to the United States,” Vodenlich said, “and his first real job here is to be coach of the German soccer club, which at the time was out of Racine, Wisconsin.”

Vodenlich quickly brought the Racine Soccer Club state and other championships in 1959-60 and immediately began sponsoring other Yugoslavian friends and family to come to the United States. Sasha eventually began working at a bank and went into business, while raising their two boys Alex Jr. and John. Now free from communist rule, the Vodenlich’s closed the curtains on their distinguished athletic careers, but opened the doors for many future generations and immigrants. Even after retirement, Sashsa never stopped helping immigrants with paperwork, the test, documentation and understanding English.

“He was a great man,” John said, “and it’s amazing what immigrants had to do to get citizenship and have a life here.”

John graduated from Case High School in Racine before playing ball at UW-Whitewater, setting records as one of the best hitters to ever put on a Warhawk jersey. After graduation and a couple years as a volunteer coach under Jim Miller at Whitewater, Vodenlich went overseas to play baseball professionally in Slovenia in 1994.

During the 80s and 90s, the Yugoslav Wars had high tensions in the area, with Slovenia and Croatia declaring independence in 1991, before the eventual collapse of Yugoslavia in 1992.

“We were in Slovenia and were playing a team in Croatia, and they were still fighting,” Vodenlich said, “so we had to cancel some games because of the fighting and they had motor shells getting close to the field and one was actually on the field.”

“I go there thinking it’s going to be safe,” Vodenlich continued, “UN soldiers are running through the streets with sirens going. I met my uncle for the first time and he was repairing a wall that got blown out by a bombing. Finally he got enough money from the government to repair it, so he was just fixing this hole in his living room that had been bombed out by the war. It was a really eye-opening kind of experience.”

And this was the start of Vodenlich’s international baseball ambassador work. For the past seven years, he has been making trips to Europe for baseball clinics speaking in England, Germany, Sweden, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Serbia and Hungary. And back home, he makes numerous trips to coaching clinics locally and nationally spreading the great game of baseball.

“I love talking baseball and every trip I learn something,” Vodenlich said of the camps. “The things we’re using now in the game, I picked up from someone I heard speak – a point of view, maybe a drill, maybe something mental. I go there to better myself, spread the word, help out the game, and do what I can and give back.”

In the spring the Warhawks continued to give back, hosting a Cancer Awareness game to raise money for cancer research foundation prior to a double-header with Wisconsin-Stout.

“Members of the team wanted to do something for charity,” Vodenlich recalled, “They decided to do something for cancer. Recently, a lot of people close to the Warhawk family, members of the team, and everybody is affected. It’s global…we put it together raised $2,500 in a day and I’m very proud of that.”

One game away from his second national championship, Vodenlich spoke highly of all those that have, and continue to impact his life and his coaching career.

“I think we have the coaching profession upside down,” Vodenlich said. “They pay the professional coaches the most, and the most significant impact is made at youth level. I was coached by a guy named Jack Harrison, he coached in both baseball and football from eight years to 14. He was the first guy that made a major impact. I had a hockey coach that made a major impact, Richard Suminero. Then of course my high school coach and ultimately my college coach, Jim Miller. And through Travels, mark Fuller, who is actually an assistant coach, he’s made a big impact on my life. Terry Ayers, Tom O’Connel, and even my high school football coach had impact on me. I think, in a big way, I’m a product of all those people.”

Four-hundred-one wins, 11 WIAC crowns, five trips to Appleton, countless other coaching honors, a national title in 2005 and a spot in the 2014 national championship game are the numbers often recited when speaking of Vodenlich.

“Number 402 is what we want,” he said in reference to winning his 400th career game against Cortland State on Saturday. The next night he claimed his 401st against St. Thomas (Minn.), and of course, No. 402 would entail winning the 2014 national championship for his alma mater.

Well beyond the numbers and statistics of baseball, Vodenlich continues guiding young men by teaching the values of sacrifice, discipline, work ethic, commitment and care. The same characteristics he learned from two of the greatest sports figures in his lifetime – his parents Alex “Sasha” and Blazenka.

Sasha passed away in the fall of 2010, after witnessing his son win a national championship in 2005, along with the other trips to the national finals in 2004 and 2010.

“Yeah, he was there. He was there for ‘04, ‘05, and ’08,” Vodenlich said, “and he’s still with us now, I’m sure.”