Joe Perona grew up on the Spring Valley Little League diamonds, preparing for a successful future at St. Bede Academy and Northwestern University and later in the Detroit Tigers organization.
On Friday, he came back full circle. Perona is the manager for Warren Park Little League, who squared off against the Spring Valley All-Stars in the Illinois State Junior League Tournament in Sterling. His team advanced with an 8-1 victory.
The same two teams crossed paths last year at the Intermediate Level in which Perona’s Warren Park squad went on to claim the state championship and advance to the Central Regional.
“We played them last year in the first game of the state tournament. It was kind of like a full circle moment,” said Perona, who has been coaching in the Warren Park Youth Baseball since 2004 and served as a board member since 2008.
Adding to the twist of fate, Perona was a Little League teammate in 1980 of Mark Wiltse, now the third base coach for the Spring Valley All-Stars.
“I batted third and he batted fourth for the Spring Valley Cubs. His son, Kenny, and my son, Louis, are now playing. It was really nice,” Perona said. “Mark was a beast in Spring Valley Little League. He was the best player as a 12 year old.”
Having grown up in the SV Little League, Perona knew what to expect when his team played them at state the past two years.
“The fact our team won last year was exciting, but there clearly was not a rivalry,” Perona said. “I just appreciate the pride the parents and community takes in sports in Spring Valley. I grew up there, the whole area, in fact. It doesn’t exist everywhere. It’s special.
“When we played them last year and this year now, I know the whole community is behind them. I told the kids I coach that, because we have a whole different community where we live, we’ve got to play as a team, because these (Spring Valley) kids have been playing together since they were little. I know what to expect. They play hard and they love to play.”
Warren Park is on the far north side of Chicago. Perona founded the Warren Park Warriors travel team within WPYB, which joined Little League Baseball in 2011. He plans to expand the Warriors program next year.
To give the city kids a taste of where they came from, Perona and Warren Park assistant coach Bob Windy, a 1979 graduate and standout at LaSalle-Peru, took their team on a day trip to the Illinois Valley on their off day Saturday. They went hiking in the St. Louis Canyon at Starved Rock, had a team dinner at Verucchi’s and stopped at the Tastee Freez in Spring Valley.
After a rainout Sunday, Warren Park (1-0) was to face Beardstown (2-0) in battle of unbeatens at state Monday. Spring Valley and Warren Park could meet again for the state championship Thursday if both teams keep winning.
Perona said it’s a privilege to be able to coach his son, Louis, who is the WP leadoff hitter and shortstop.
Perona, a father of four, was a 1987 graduate of St. Bede and went on to star at Northwestern. He was an All-Big Ten catcher for the Wildcats, team captain and team MVP two years. He was an eighth-round draft pick by the Tigers in 1991, playing five years in their farm system, three at the AA level.
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