Longtime Andrew baseball coach Frank Ganser never once wavered in his belief that he would be in charge of one of the most respected programs in the state.
Even when the Thunderbolts finished 2-15 in their first season back in 1979, his optimism couldn’t have been higher.
“To be perfectly honest, I always thought Andrew was going to be one of the best baseball programs around,” Ganser said. “I knew what I wanted to do and was confident. I was around a lot of great coaches, and I liked certain things each of them did. I took the best of what I liked from each and used it myself, plus I had my own philosophy.
"It’s like (late comedian) Milton Berle, who would steal everybody’s jokes and make them his own. I remember going to watch state those first couple years and saying, 'We’re going to be here soon.' I just had a feeling. I had a feeling that once we got to state once, we’d be going back again, again and again.”
Ganser was right.
Andrew made six state appearances during his 29 years at the helm, including capturing the program’s only state championship in 1992.
“Frank was one of those coaches you wanted to win for,” said 1992 Andrew graduate Jason Imrisek, who was the winning pitcher in the championship game. “He was a genuinely nice guy and knew his baseball. You always knew he’d be there for you. If you needed to stay after practice for something or talk to him before a game, he’d be there.
"I played for a lot of coaches, and some don’t motivate you to do your best, but you wanted to give everything you had for Frank.”
Ganser retired from coaching in 2007.
The Thunderbolts made their first state appearance in 1989 before winning the state crown in 1992. Andrew made three consecutive state appearances from 1997-1999, including losing to Edwardsville in the championship game in 1998 and placing third in 1999. Andrew also finished third in 2002 during its last state trip.
“It’s tough to get back there,” Ganser said. “I always thought just getting to state was a feat and anything else was gravy. Winning a state championship was definitely a highlight. There are many really good coaches that never get that opportunity. It doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are, a lot of them don’t end up winning a state championship.”
While Ganser has many fond memories of his successful coaching career, the 1992 title team has a special place in his heart.
Andrew, which was nationally ranked and the state’s No. 1 team to begin the season, turned in one of the most dominating state performances ever. The Thunderbolts crushed Belleville West 12-1 in five innings in the championship game after knocking off rival Lockport 12-8 in the semifinals and Harlan 14-3 in the quarterfinals.
“I didn’t expect that,” Ganser said of the lopsided scores. “I think part of it had to do with we had a good reputation of not beating ourselves, and I think we intimidated some people there.
"I knew we were going to be a good team, but I never dreamt that we’d go all the way in the beginning. Then, we win a regional and sectional and you start thinking, 'We’ve got a good shot here.' I just never thought that far ahead, I was afraid to do that. It was just a good group of kids. We didn’t have any real superstars, but it was a talented team and a group of hard workers that really got along well.”
Andrew’s potent offensive attack at state was led by Tom Snyder (8-for-11), Mike Olson (7-for-10), Steve DeHaan (5-for-10), Billy Cusack (5-for-10) and Imrisek (4-for-9).
Snyder, who was the team’s leadoff hitter and second baseman, was named the state tournament Most Valuable Player.
“When we went downstate, the baseball looked as big as a beach ball,” Snyder said. “I was just locked in offensively and defensively. Balls were just finding me and everything was coming my way. It was a great feeling.
"I remember being in the hotel after we won it and all the families, parents and friends were there. Everybody was hugging and cheering. It was a surreal experience.
“We all played together growing up. We played Little League with our dads as the coaches together. The state championship was a culmination of all those years together and the hard work paying off. We’re lifelong friends. We have a special bond. We may not see each other for three or four years, but when we do, we just pick right back up. We go right back to telling old stories and telling jokes.”
Snyder was just one of the many success stories for the Thunderbolts.
He was cut during his freshman season, but didn’t let that deter him from becoming an impact player down the road.
“After Tommy Snyder got cut as a freshman, he asked the freshman coach if he could stick around and be a player manager,” Ganser said. “Every year, he improved and talk about a kid coming in and not only improving every four years, but improving from the beginning until the end of (his senior) season. He hit a ton at state.”
Imrisek, who was the team’s starting catcher, was also a standout pitcher.
He played three seasons at the University of Evansville before being drafted by the New York Yankees in the 43rd round of the 1995 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Imrisek, who also was drafted out of high school, played four seasons of minor-league ball at various levels.
Being on the mound for the final out of the state championship game still brings a smile to Imrisek’s face to this day.
“That meant everything to me at the time,” said Imrisek, who now resides in Woodridge. “It was the most exciting moment of my life and something everyone dreams about going into high school.”
While Andrew’s offense stole the show at state, the pitching was stellar all season.
A.J. Jones, who pitched at Notre Dame, went 13-0 with a state-record 11 shutouts.
“A.J. came up as a shortstop, but everything he threw to first tailed off,” Ganser said. “He was a sidewinder pitcher. Our pitching coach at the time tried to change him into a more orthodox thrower, but he didn’t look good, so we told him to keep dropping down. We decided to leave him alone and it proved to be a great move.”
Zack Pringle, who played at Arizona, was a standout shortstop for the Thunderbolts after transferring from Massachusetts. He was also a key contributor on the mound, along with Bill Cusack.
“Billy Cusack was maybe just 5-7 or 5-8, but talk about heart,” Ganser said. “He’d challenge you on the mound. He felt like he was 6-5, and he’d go right at the hitters.”
Bob Naselli was a shortstop and Ben Kotwica, who went on to be a captain on the Army football team, also had impacts.
DeHaan is the brother of current Andrew head coach Dave DeHaan, who played for Ganser and graduated in 1991.
“We had a lot of good talent and kind of expected to win state,” Imrisek said. “We were not going to accept anything less than that. A state championship is something no one can ever take away from you. I’m still good friends with most of the guys on the team. It was a good group of guys, and we’ve stuck together for the past 20 years.
"A lot of us later played on a 30-and-older baseball team together. We’re actually talking about getting together at the Andrew Golf outing for the 20-year anniversary (of the championship). One thing that stood out about that team was we enjoyed hanging out with each other on and off the field. A lot of times we’d stay after practice and just hang out and maybe play a pick-up game.”
Appearances Are Everything
While winning was always a top priority, Ganser took pride in the perception of the program as well.
He wanted the team to have the best field, equipment and uniforms.
Andrew didn’t have a field to play on in its first season, but the cornfield that occupied the space at the time would develop into a field envied by many through the years.
As recently as last November, the field continues to get improvements, thanks in part to the Friends of Andrew Baseball organization that was formed in 2004 to help the program financially. A wooden fence was installed that features the program’s retired numbers, including Ganser’s No. 13. The backstop was also replaced not long ago with netting and bricks.
Ganser also made sure the Thunderbolts looked immaculate taking infield practice before games, believing it would intimidate opponents.
“One time a cross-checker (scout) for the Boston Red Sox came up to me before a game and said, ‘Coach, I travel the country and this is the best infield I’ve ever seen.’ We always tried to be sharp and quick. We wanted teams in the dugout to sit and watch us. Our kids got confidence from it, and we thought we’d get an advantage over a team.”
His coaching style was always predicated on confidence.
“I always told my players that there are two types of cocky, hot dog cocky and confident cocky,” said Ganser, who grew up in Chicago and is a 1959 graduate of St. Ethelreda Elementary School. “I thought we were always confident cocky, although I’m sure a lot of people might have thought we were hot dog cocky at times.”
Hall of a Career
Ganser retired from teaching in 2004, but remained the head coach for three more seasons.
He currently ranks seventh all-time in coaching victories with a career record of 684-285-5 and was inducted into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2004.
“That was nice, no doubt about it,” said Ganser, who singled out Roy Bullard, Ken Ogrodowski, Bob Gillund and Rich Stockwell among the many coaches that made his success possible. “I had some fantastic coaches over time. I know it’s a cliché, but it was not me alone. It really was a lot of guys.
"The freshmen and sophomore coaches really did great jobs and by the time the players got to varsity, it was a piece of cake. The head coach gets credit for wins and ends up in the Hall of Fame, but I had a lot of great coaches help me. I owe it all to those guys.”
Ganser considers coaching his son, Brian, who graduated a year before the championship season, as another highlight of his career.
After finishing a combined 11-29 in the program’s first two years of existence, the only other losing season Andrew endured during Ganser’s tenure was in 1984 when the Thunderbolts went 14-15.
Ganser concluded his coaching career with 23 straight winning seasons, with each team winning at least 22 games and nine of them posting 30-plus wins.
“The thing that stands out to me is how well prepared you were for a game,” Snyder said. “Practices were not fun because we’re drilling and drilling. When you’re doing these tedious drills, you don’t realize how important they are until the situation comes up in games. Then, you’re like, ‘Wow, now I know why we worked on this.’
"We were always so well prepared for anything. He was a tough coach. I remember being interviewed once and someone asked if Frank was an S.O.B. to play for? I said, ‘Sometimes,’ but you have to be, you have to be tough on guys and prepare them to be their best.”
One of the many people Ganser had a huge impact on was 1988 Andrew graduate Mike Imrisek, who was a longtime helper of the program and brother of Jason.
He started working with Ganser during the 1984-85 season and continued to do so until Ganser retired.
“I can’t say enough about Frank,” Lisle resident Mike Imrisek said. “He took me under his wing. He has this ability to bring out the best in everybody for the common good of the program. It’s a true testament to not only Frank, but all of the players throughout the program’s history, to have the type of reputation Andrew has in the local community and the entire state. There was always the underlying tone and expectation of pride in being part of the program.”
The Next Chapter
Ganser knew exactly when it was time to call it quits and hasn’t looked back since.
“I remember thinking one day, ‘Geez, I’ve got to go to practice,’ " Ganser said. “That was the first time in my 29 years as coach that I ever said that. I knew it was time.”
While he still enjoys catching an occasional Andrew baseball game or practice, he’s at peace with his decision to hang up the cleats.
“I don’t really miss it,” said Ganser, who has been married to his wife Linda for 44 years and also has two daughters, Carie and Katie. “People always ask me if I miss it and I say, 'No, I don’t.' If I go watch a game or practice, I kind of miss it, but as soon as I get away I’m fine. I picked up golf. My kids got me golf clubs when I retired and they just sat around. My wife said I should at least try these, so I did and now I’m hooked. I’m not going to beat you, but I don’t embarrass myself. It takes my mind off of baseball.”