Coach Cognetta: Small town, big triumphs
Jerry Cognetta's softball career began in St. Paul and somehow managed to find its way to Elmwood.
The population of Cognetta's place of residence may have decreased as he moved around to find coaching opportunities, but the amount of softball success he acquired did not.
Cognetta, who coached the Elmwood Raiders softball team from 1977-1996, will be inducted into the Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame at Chula Vista in Wisconsin Dells, on Saturday, February 23.
Cognetta's honor isn't shocking considering the career 301-39 record he captured while coaching the Raiders, and his help in normalizing girls' athletics in Elmwood makes his induction a no-brainer.
Cognetta's lifelong love for softball began at a young age. As a kid, Cognetta would travel all over the country playing slow pitch softball with his brother, dad and uncle.
His softball career took a detour when he went to UW-River Falls to study education and play baseball, but he returned to his first love shortly after graduating from college when he was hired by the Elmwood School District as a middle school teacher and varsity softball coach.
"I was just going to see what was going on there, but I liked it so bad," Cognetta said while describing his first encounter with Elmwood. "Driving down through the valley was beautiful."
As Cognetta began to fall in love with Elmwood, the town struck up a passion for his beloved sport.
Cognetta joined the Raiders' softball program in its second year and the majority of his players were brand new to organized softball.
"It just really blossomed," Cognetta said. "We just went, 'Oh my goodness. These girls have a lot of talent.' Everyone wanted to play as much as they could. The girls came in in the morning to do exercises, practices after school. They just loved it. They just wanted to play more."
The girls were no longer winning backyard softball games; they were bringing home state championship titles.
The Raiders won their first of two WIAA state championships with Cognetta in the new coach's first season on the job. The program's progress happened so quickly that the Raiders didn't even have official uniforms prior to the state tournament.
Cognetta said his players realized how special their accomplishment was when they returned from the state tournament and were welcomed by fire trucks, police cars and excited fans who lined the streets to welcome and congratulate the state champs.
"The girls thought it was the best thing," Cognetta said.
The community began to notice the Raiders' growing success and soon came in herds to watch their local team play.
"It really turned into a family; everybody was involved," said Cognetta's wife, Julie.
"We'd have 30 to 40 people come and watch us play in that little town," Cognetta said. "There were no chairs or anything, but they came."
The Raiders went on to win another state title in 1984 and finished as runners-up in 1985, 1994 and 1995 in a total of nine state tournament appearances with Cognetta. His teams won nine WIAA sectional titles, 16 regional championships and compiled a conference play
record of 163-11, which includes a 63-conference game win streak and 17 Dunn-St. Croix Conference titles.
Cognetta is quick to compliment the talented athletes he was able to coach during his career with the Raiders, but what allowed him to get the most out of his players?
"Coach Cognetta got his players to perform to the best of their abilities by accepting nothing (but) your best all the time," Cognetta's former player and current Raiders softball head coach Becky Baier said. "We were expected to work hard every practice and in every game, and he had the ability to instill a passion for the sport of softball in his players."
Baier played for Cognetta from 1987-1990 and described her former coach varsity softball's "leader of the pack".
The Hall of Fame coach was honored with the Wisconsin High School Coaches Association's Outstanding Service Award in 1995, earned the Wisconsin High School Coaching Association's Championship Coaching Award in 1977 and 1984 and was inducted into UW-River Falls' Hall of Fame in 2003 for his contributions as a player and coach.
Jerry and Julie raised three children — Cheristi, Vinny and Ario — in Elmwood, and coach Cognetta changed his coaching positions as his kids went through the softball and baseball programs. After Cheristi graduated, Cognetta took on a coaching position with the Raiders baseball team from 1998-2004. He also was an assistant coach for the UW-Stout Blue Devils from 2007-2011.
But many years and awards later, Cognetta still knows what he's most proud of.
"All the kids never wanted to quit playing softball," Cognetta said. "They wanted to just keep playing, and they wished they could continue to do it."
Baier can attest to this. She remembers watching Elmwood's high school softball teams and watching them play with a love and excitement for the game. "That made me want to be a part of high school softball when I was old enough," Baier recalled. "Seeing great games and players from our town instilled an intrinsic drive in me and others to be part of the success. We wanted to play Elmwood Raider softball."
Hall of Fame events are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. at Chula Vista on Saturday, Feb. 23.