If there is any athlete who epitomizes what it means to be a Riverside-Brookfield Bulldog, it is Brian Kulaga.
The senior’s toughness is undeniable, his commitment unmatched and his attitude indefatigable.
Kulaga has overcome some serious injuries to excel first on the football field and now on the baseball diamond. The 5-11, 195-pounder is coming into his own in baseball just as his high school career is about to end, but he will continue his football career at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“What I always tell people is I like football during football season and I like baseball during baseball season,” Kulaga said. “But I figured that I like football just a little bit more and I might be a little bit better at it.”
That’s despite the fact that football has dealt him a few setbacks, which he is not afraid to detail.
“My junior year I dislocated my right elbow, missed about four games and came back for the last game of the season,” Kulaga said. “I went through the off-season and recovered pretty well. It didn’t really affect me during baseball season, which was good.
“Then at the beginning of [senior] year against Nazareth I had a back contusion with bruised kidneys. I was only out a week, though, and came back and had no more problems after that.”
Though Kulaga didn’t miss any playing time, he did deal with some pain. But he plowed through the discomfort and helped the Bulldogs qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2010, rushing 139 times for 758 yards and 10 touchdowns and catching 24 passes for 138 yards and one score as part of a talented backfield.
“Brian played through injuries all season long but never used it as an excuse or told his teammates he was hurting,” RBHS football coach Brendan Curtin said. “He was instrumental in preparing our defense week in and week out with his style of running with the ball.”
A tremendous work ethic in the weight room not only inspired his teammates but helped strengthen him for the grind of the football season and got him ready for the baseball season.
“Brian is also a member of our Canine Unit, [which] is comprised of an elite group of football players who have excelled in the weight room,” Curtin said. “Only seven players have reached Canine Unit [status] in the two years it has been instituted.”
Kulaga said he is finally completely healthy, able to throw, run and hit with abandon, which he has been doing with regularity this spring.
After hitting .302 with 14 RBI in just 53 at-bats as a junior, Kulaga has become the starting right fielder and clean-up hitter. Through 19 games he was hitting .316 with 15 RBIs, 14 runs and nine stolen bases, while making just one error against 12 putouts.
“Brian didn’t even start last year,” RBHS baseball coach Dallas Till said. “He was kind of a guy we rotated in and out, so he was thrust into a much different role for himself this year, going from being an every-other-day guy last year to being a 4 hitter. He embraced that role and has really thrived.
“He’s come up with a number of key hits for us, he has great at-bats, he’s patient. He knows with two strikes to just put it in play. He steals bases for us, he plays good solid defense for us. He’s really been a clutch hitter for us, especially the last couple weeks.”
That has coincided with the Bulldogs’ recent hot streak. They have won their last eight games and 13 of their last 14 to improve to 17-5 overall and are 13-1 in conference play, closing in on their goal of winning the Metro Suburban West title.
“We’re playing real good baseball now,” Kulaga said. “We have great team chemistry and it’s been fun. My teammates trust me, I trust them, so it’s been good.”
The Bulldogs, who are getting great pitching from aces Connor Berek and Nico Ranieri, who have combined for 10 wins, and solid defense from everyone, elected Kulaga captain this year despite this being his first year as a starter.
“It was a big honor,” said Kulaga, who credited his teammates with helping him get through his injuries. “[The injuries] were frustrating, definitely. It was rough but [the Bulldogs] were all pulling me in the right direction, helping me get healthy. When I came back in they welcomed me right back in.”
So did Till, who is thrilled with Kulaga’s performance.
“Brian is the kid that every coach dreams of,” Till said. “He’s respectful, courteous and a hard worker, all the cliché terms that coaches can come up with.
“He definitely epitomizes all those things but he’s just a kid that you like being around, that the other kids like being around. They have a lot of respect for him. He’s a very good athlete, works hard in the weight room and he’s shown good leadership this year.”