Unsung Hero: Gene Kastelic

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“One … two … three … Tigers!”

Jason W. Brooks-News-Bulletin photo: Gene Kastelic and his wife, Laurie, stand in front of the field house at Los Lunas High School’s Volunteer Field soccer complex. Kastelic donated much of his own time, materials and organizational skills to create and maintain the complex.

That’s the battle cry heard at Volunteer Field over the past 12 years just before Los Lunas High soccer teams have taken to the pitch.

Many volunteers have put in countless hours to make this rare school-facility arrangement work, none more so, it seems, than Gene Kastelic.

As one of the News-Bulletin’s 2012 Unsung Heroes, Kastelic helped urge Los Lunas Schools to build a two-field complex that has been home to Tiger teams since 2000. He has also put in many hours to help maintain it, although school personnel now handle a great deal of the maintenance.

“It was all for the love of the game,” said Kastelic, who’s three sons played for the Tigers. “I’m so grateful the place is named Volunteer Field. That really shows what the place is all about.”

Growing up in Wisconsin as one of seven children, Kastelic says he was taught to live by several tenets. These included becoming a believer in the Green Bay Packers — but also included sharing a workload and caring about your fellow man, getting schoolwork done and the idea that one could do anything if enough effort were involved.

In 1983, the Los Lunas boys soccer team won the state tournament in only the third year such an event was held for New Mexico. But with only a small field located near the Willie Chavez Field football stadium, the Tigers played their home matches on fields at Katherine Gallegos and Ann Parish elementary schools during the regular season.

The need for the Tigers’ own complex increased as the village of Los Lunas and the school grew in the 1990s. With spiraling construction and maintenance costs, Kastelic, who is in the landscaping business, and others developed a movement to create a complex with volunteer efforts.

Bob Whorton, another parent, and Michelle Osowsky of Los Lunas High School, went before the school board in 1999. Whorton approached Kastelic ahead of that meeting and Kastelic agreed to be the unofficial leader of the project.

“Because I bite off more than I can chew, and because my three sons were potentially going to play on these fields, and because I knew the district couldn’t afford to pay a big-hit contractor to do the work, I said yes to leading the project from start to finish, and beyond,” he said.

By December 1999, Kastelic started gathering personnel to prepare the northwest part of the LLHS campus for the fields. It was not only tough coordinating personnel in what would normally be a cooperate project, but Kastelic also admits that it is tough to work for him.

The fields were completed during 2000 and were first used for a match in October of that year. Whorton was with a company that did all the grading for Sivage-Thomas Homes, so all of the grading ended up being done at no cost to the school district.

The debut of the complex was a celebration, for which Los Lunas High School band director Henry Estrada brought in the Tiger Marching Band.

Kastelic helped greatly with maintenance of the fields until around 2003, as Los Lunas Schools personnel weren’t initially staffed with the crews to do the needed landscaping. He moved to New York for a couple of years, but has returned and lives in Bosque Farms, where he operates a sprinkler-repair service.

His oldest son, Danny, graduated in 2002, followed by Andy in 2006 and Alex in 2008.

Several student-athletes seemed happy when finding out Kastelic is being honored as an Unsung Hero. One of the adults who has been around since the beginning of Volunteer Fields is Eliseo Aguirre, who has coached the Tiger boys since 1999.

“Words can’t describe all the things Gene has done for these programs,” said Aguirre. “It’s a well-deserved honor.”

James Torres, the Lady Tigers’ coach since 2007, played for the Tiger boys in the late 1990s.

“He was all about doing your own work,” said Torres while sitting in the temperature-controlled Volunteer Fieldhouse after a recent match. “One of the many impressive things was when the field area was leveled, they left enough room to be this fieldhouse later. He built locker-room benches, but he wanted the kids to work for what they had, and he had them do projects like clean up around Las Maravillas. He helped instill a work ethic in the players.”

Oscar Vargas, another former Tiger, said Kastelic was the type of parent who wanted players to not only learn to accept help, but do things on their own.

“The team was always family-oriented, and Gene, more than anyone, did a lot of the family’s hard work himself,” said Vargas. “He was all about doing a job before it needed to be done.”

Visitors still remark on the quality of Volunteer Field. When Vargas was playing, the Tigers were a part of southern-based District 3-5A, and he feels the Tigers had the finest facility among those five teams.

“It felt like home when we went out for the kickoff,” he said. “It was a different feeling playing there, compared to anywhere else. And parents’ hard work made that happen, with Gene getting them going, because he felt that was the right thing to do.”

Kastelic not only arranged team-building service projects for the players, but has also given inspirational speeches and led the team in prayer — roles not typically taken on by a parent. Vargas said Kastelic is a hard worker himself, so it’s natural for him to inspire others through helping with the field and his “rally the troops” activities.

“He would always add a little bit of humor,” Vargas said, remembering Kastelic’s encouraging words. “It not only helped the younger guys build character, it also helped get other parents involved, too.”

Omar Vargas, Oscar’s brother, pointed out that Los Lunas’ autonomous, small community is where the efforts of Kastelic are the most useful.

“In a bigger school district, Gene might not be allowed to do all that stuff,” said Omar. “But we had the best field around, and I can’t explain what a great feeling it gives kids to have a nice facility. It’s like someone really cares. And I still get that feeling when I play on the field in alumni matches.”

Marie Ipock, a 2010 graduate, said the LLHS girls team reaped the benefits of the fields and Kastelic’s hard work.

“I love all the work he’s done with our facilities,” said Ipock, now a junior midfielder for the Metro State College Roadrunners in Denver. “It was always nice to have teams come to our field and say, ‘Wow, I would love to play here.’ He did a great job of making our facilities more professional.”

Kastelic says he cannot take as much of the credit. In fact, if the News-Bulletin accepted nominations for non-human objects, he would probably suggest Volunteer Field as an Unsung Hero itself.

He credits his children, plus Whorton, Osowsky, Jeff Good, Jose Batista, Tom Tooker, Nathan Tooker, Lane O’Conner, Steve Moore, Teresa Scott and Valley Improvement Association personnel, the LLHS soccer and football teams, the school board that backed the project and many others for helping make the unique project happen.

He also thanks his wife, Laurie.

“I wouldn’t have even been in this area, or had sons if it weren’t for her,” said Kastelic. “For every supposed successful man, there is a woman standing right next to him.”

He describes himself in the third person, regarding his management style of the field’s construction: “Gene, he grew up in Wisconsin during the Vince Lombardi era; he is a meticulous, demanding S.O.B. throughout the project.”