Iolan part of Red Devils’ newest Hall of Fame class

Iolan Becky Nilges, who worked at Allen Community College as student activities director for 17 years, was honored for her long-time support of the Red Devil baseball team. She will join standouts Dave harden, Rob Smith and Brent Bartlett as the Red Devil Diamond Club's newest class of inductees next weekend.

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Sports

October 1, 2021 - 2:35 PM

Becky Nilges, during her time as student activities director at Allen Community College.

The Red Devil Diamond Club, a group of former Allen Community College baseball players and coaches, will gather in Iola next week for their Alumni Weekend celebration.

On top of a dedication ceremony for the baseball team’s new turf field, and a golf tournament next Saturday, the weekend culminates with the Diamond Club’s 2021 Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies.

Four faces familiar to the storied baseball program are the honorees. Brent Bartlett, who played third base for Allen in 1987 and 1988; Rob Smith, shortstop for the 1989 team; Dave Harden, who pitched for the Red Devils in 1995 and 1996; and Iolan Becky Nilges, one of only two inductees to have made it solely for her work off the field as Allen’s student activities director for 17 years.

The field dedication ceremony takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the ACC baseball diamond, followed by an alumni home run derby at 8 o’clock. 

Next Saturday’s golf tournament — open to the public — begins at 9 a.m. at the Allen County Country Club.

Four-man teams are invited to partake for $200 per team. The event serves as a fundraiser for the Red Devil Diamond Club.

The banquet that evening caps the celebration.

Iolan Becky Nilges has worn many hats in the realm of community service. Here, she gathers with fellow Iola-USD 257 facilities committee members Ryan Sparks, from left, Dan Willis, Nilges and Savannah Flory.Register file photo

FOLKS WHO know Becky Nilges know she’s always been fond of serving the community.

She’s volunteered for various civic boards overseeing everything from Veterans Day and Farm-City Days celebration to serving on Iola’s Planning Commission.

Rewind a few years, to 1979, when Nilges — fresh out of college — returned to her alma mater at Allen Community College as the school’s first ever student activities director.

Her duties were plentiful. She advised the Student Senate, oversaw ACC’s intramural sports programs and served as the college’s Little Dutch Boy, filling whatever roles deemed necessary.

She also coached the Red Devil volleyball team for four seasons, winning a Jayhawk Conference co-championship, along the way.

Her office, in the college’s Student Activities Building, also was a popular gathering spot for students.

“This was back in the ’80s and ’90s, and when you left home, you left home,” she recalled. “They didn’t have technology” to connect with friends and family from faraway towns.

“So, yes, many of the players were homesick, or just looking for a reassuring voice, and a friendly face.”

So, yes, the kinships came naturally.

“I just got to know a lot of the players,” she said.

It turns out that Nilges also was an avid baseball fan. 

So it was a natural inclination for her to head out to the diamond to watch the Red Devils whenever  she could.

She was in the stands in 1983 when the Red Devils qualified for their first ever Junior College World Series appearance in Colorado.

Nilges stayed at the college until 1997, when she departed to become executive director of the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce. In 2003, she left the Chamber to pursue other passions. She worked for a spell with the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, and then dedicated her life to running a daycare in 2005.

She admits bonding especially close with the players from the early 1980s, in large part because of their success on the field, and sharing the experience of making it to the World Series.

She’s also been a regular at previous Hall of Fame induction banquets to catch up with old friends.

“It’s hard to see them now as grandpas,” she laughed. “They’re forever going to be my 18- and 19-year-olds.”

Nilges joins the late Judith Bragg, a former Allen instructor, as the only two non-players or coaches to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I was shocked when they called,” she said. “It’s an honor.”

Rob Smith played in the Cleveland Indians organization after his days at Allen.

ROB SMITH, a Topeka native, was a standout athlete as a child, but received scholarship offers only as a football player.

There’s a reason for that: His high school didn’t field a baseball team.

Nevertheless, Smith was a part of a Topeka-based American Legion squad that happened to catch the eye of former Red Devil baseball coach Val McLean, who invited Smith to try out for the team.

That was all it took.

Smith started  both years he was there, in 1989 and 1990, and became renowned for his all-around play.

He was among Allen’s leaders in runs, RBIs and home runs each year, as well as for his baserunning and defensive prowess.

Smith, who earned conference and region honors at Allen, was recruited by several Division I baseball programs before opting to go pro after being drafted by the Cleveland Indians.

Smith played in the Indians organization for several years, and then got a job afterward in the tech industry.

But he also knew where his passion remained — coaching.

He started up the Smith Coaching Academy in Topeka in the early 2000s, and has since worked with thousands of young players.

He credits McLean and his experiences at Allen for much of his coaching foundation.

“Coach McLean was always teaching his players the mental and emotional side of what it takes to be successful in both baseball and in life,” Smith said in a statement. “He really helped prepare me for the next level of baseball, and more importantly, for life beyond. 

“I am thankful for the opportunity that he gave me to play for him and so very grateful to him for everything he taught me about baseball and life preparation. To this day, I try to pass on his teachings to the young people and athletes that I am privileged to coach today.”

Brent Bartlett.

BRENT BARTLETT grew up in Missouri, and like Smith before him, made due without having a high school baseball team.

He was a standout in multiple sports, earning state honors in football, basketball and track,and excelled on a nearby community’s American Legion baseball team, winning the Missouri state championship in 1986.

From there, he played third base for Allen in 1986-87, leading the team with a .475 batting average.

He opted to return to Allen the next season, eschewing an opportunity to sign with the New York Mets after being drafted in the 37th round, and another successful season led to a scholarship from Missouri State University, then known as Southwest Missouri State.

Bartlett then took a job as a teacher and coach in Drexel, Mo., where he led the girls basketball teams to a state title.

In 1990, Bartlett married Lori Suschnick, former Miss Missouri. They’ve now been married 30-plus years, which led to a move to Lori’s hometown of Liberal, Mo.

From there, Bartlett took the helm at Nevada R-5 school district, where he compiled 463 wins and 17 district championships over 24 years, becoming the school’s winningest girls basketball coach in the process.

Dave Harden

DAVE HARDEN grew up in Overland Park with one goal in life: to play baseball.

He was a three-year first-team all-state player for Shawnee Mission West, and in baseball programs across the Kansas City area, including the Ban Johnson Baseball League, Diamond Kings of Missouri and the Senior Overland Park Babe Ruth team.

Playing 100-plus games a summer for four years, caught the eyes of several scouts.

He was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1994, but instead opted to take his talents to Iola.

He was selected as a preseason All-American as both a pitcher and first baseman. And while he excelled as a left-handed pitcher, the first baseman duties came to an end.

Harden signed with the White Sox after his time at Allen was complete, but his professional career lasted eight days.

That’s when he realized the new love of his life, a softball player he met at Allen, was back home.

He married that softball player, Teresa Madrigal in 1998. 

They welcomed their son, Davin, later that year.

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