Baranek: Marist’s Kokaska, dad defend with honor
Tony Baranek email@example.com | (708) 633-5947 June 7, 2012 6:26PM
Copy shot of a family photo of Marist softball player Ashlynn Kokaska and her family in Bedford Park, Illinois, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. Her father is serving in the U.S. Army reserves in Afghanistan. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 9, 2012 6:13AM
Marist senior Ashlynn Kokaska says that when she was very young she spent countless hours with her father, James, playing catch at the park, in front of their Oak Lawn home — just about everywhere, really.
“We’d just play catch forever,” she said. “Even when we’d go to my brother’s games he’d just throw popups to me over and over. I guess it shows.”
No kidding. Good job, Dad. Your daughter is now the starting center fielder for a Class 4A state champion.
You were in her thoughts just as much as I’m sure she was in yours June 9. when she helped Marist to its first girls state title in any sport, sealed with a 5-0 win over Bartlett.
Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t there to witness his daughter’s biggest high school softball moment. James Kokaska is nearly 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan, where he is serving our country as a lieutenant colonel engineer with the Army Reserves.
His duties involve traveling from one base to another and determining which are secure and safe enough for the soldiers serving there to be evacuated as part of the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal.
Kokaska has been in Afghanistan since March, and is scheduled to remain there until March 2013.
Hopefully, he’ll be home for a two-week leave over Christmas. In the meantime, a daughter who misses her dad will keep trying to make him proud.
It was quite a postseason for Kokaska — who started out the season slowly offensively, but used her glove to secure a starting spot in at least the flex position. And her production down the stretch went beyond just her defense.
In the state title win, her sacrifice bunt turned up the pressure in what would become a five-run fifth inning. In a 6-5, sectional semifinal win over Sandburg, her single in the ninth inning preceded the walkoff hit by teammate Maggie Gorman. Against Trinity in the Rosemont Supersectional, she hit out of the nine hole and had a pair of singles and reached base all three times.
Dad had to love reading that.
“I talked to him (June 2),” Ashlynn said. “I was on the phone with him and I was like, ‘Dad, we’re playing in a supersectional on Monday!’
“You could tell he was upset that he was missing it, but he was so excited for me. He told us to email him as soon as we were done with the game. So when we got home we emailed him a picture we took in front of the scoreboard.
“He hasn’t answered us yet, but I’m sure he got it.”
While he’s away, Ashlynn gets to talk to her father for about 10 minutes once every four weeks. They email back and forth, but it’s spotty.
For James Kokaska, serving his country has been a way of life, one year of every four, for 21 years. When he’s not away, he has a regular job as a director of construction for Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
For Ashlynn’s biggest days, though, the timing was never right.
When she was born, he was serving in Bosnia. During her kindergarten graduation, as best as her mother, Jane, could recall, he was in Korea. He also missed her grammar school and high school graduations. And while he’ll be back home for three years starting next March ...
“He’ll probably miss my college graduation,” Ashlynn, who has enrolled Purdue, said.
Ashlynn had a smile on her face when she said that, sort of an, “It figures” look that only a daughter could get away with. There was no trace of, “Why me?”
“I mean, it’s disappointing that he’s not there, but I know it’s his job,” she said. “And I’m proud of him. I know he’s serving his country and I’m proud of him for that.”
Truth be told, Ashlynn is a very well-adjusted young woman, the oldest of five kids who looks out for her sibilings — even at her own expense.
During his year of service, James Kokaska is allowed to take two weeks vacation. He offered this time to come home in time for Ashlynn’s high school graduation and watch her in the state playoffs.
“I told him, ‘Well, you just left. I don’t want you to have to come home for this. It’s not a big, important time for my younger brother and sisters, so why don’t you just come back for Christmas, when it means a lot to everyone?
“He was disappointed that he missed it, but it’s OK. ... We’ll have a ton of pictures to show him when he comes home.”
That’s some kid you’ve got there, James.