Hill heroics highlight locals’ performances
Given the erratic nature of this spring’s weather systems, it wasn’t surprising to frequently see baseball teams’ offenses struggle and pitchers often appear dominant.
The conditions have since stabilized, and expectations of robust attacks taking center stage during the summer season undoubtedly have grown stronger, particularly since coaches tend to practice pitching-by-committee strategies in June and July. So what happened last week?
Well, runs weren’t entirely at a premium, but mixed among the higher-scoring contests were some that closely resembled those frequently seen in April. One of the most notable was Thursday’s matchup between Brother Rice and Evergreen Park, which the Crusaders captured by a 2-1 score.
Marist nipped Sandburg 3-2 in another encounter, Chicago Christian edged Richards 4-2 and dropped a 3-2 verdict to Andrew, and St. Laurence wound up on the short end of a 3-1 decision versus De La Salle.
While none of the area coaches was able to pinpoint exactly why so many games featured pitchers’ duels, those whose clubs took part in them were certainly happy to witness the events.
“It was a good game [against Richards], one you wouldn’t have to apologize for in the spring,” Knights assistant coach Alex Bolyanatz said. “We feel comfortable [with our pitching] and we played outstanding defense. We made only one error and our infield play was great.”
“Pitching and defense are going to take us where we need to go, and they’re showing progress,” Mustangs assistant coach Jason Dunneback said of his hurlers. “Usually, you have one or two [reliable] pitchers, and every fourth day you’ll get to the guy your team has confidence in and plays well behind. We have at least two or three, and maybe four, who can deal when they’re on the mound.”
“The biggest difference I’ve seen between spring and now is we’re throwing more strikes,” RedHawks coach Tom Fabrizio said. “We’re not [allowing] as many baserunners because we’re not hitting guys or walking them.”
Fabrizio brought junior-to-be Rich Kairis up to the varsity squad in the spring and was pleased with the youngster’s quick acclimation, and one of Kairis’ classmates — Marty Meyer — lent a hand in Marist’s vanquishing of the Eagles. Meyer, the brother of former RedHawks multi-sport standout Ryan Meyer, joined forces with senior-to-be David Nelson to handcuff Sandburg.
Fabrizio was impressed by both pitchers’ efforts, especially because they were able to overcome four errors behind them. Ironically, that shaky fielding performance ran counter to what Fabrizio believes will actually be a source of strength for Marist in 2014.
Another senior-to-be, Robert Hovey, tossed a shutout at Stagg and helped the RedHawks post a 7-0 triumph last Wednesday. Hovey, who limited the Chargers to three singles, was used sparingly in the spring but is expected to take on a far greater role in his final prep campaign.
But while Fabrizio has admittedly “challenged those seniors-to-be,” he also sees several younger players assuming major roles next spring.
“I like the sophomores coming up to be juniors,’ Fabrizio said. “They’re very competitive, they listen and they’re pretty talented.
“I like the mentality these young kids have — I think our younger kids are used to winning because they’ve done it at the lower level, so they expect it. I think there’ll be four or five who’ll be able to start.”
Among those who’ve caught the coach’s eye during a 4-2 start to the summer campaign are catcher Eric Hansen and shortstop Pat Meehan. Those two, plus Nelson, Kairis and Blake Bieniek have been Marist’s offensive ringleaders thus far.
“I like what we have,” Fabrizio said. “That’s not a knock on our other teams — we were in the Elite Eight two years ago — but we have a chance to be more consistent. I’m pretty excited to see how the rest of the summer plays out.
“We’re never going to have the [pure] talent like [Mt.] Carmel, [St.] Rita and [St.] Laurence, so we’ve got to bring something different to the table. We try getting guys to maximize their abilities.”
In addition to their victories over Sandburg and Stagg, the RedHawks also routed Bremen 13-1 last week.
The Knights’ success against Richards resulted from a three-man pitching operation, and only one member of that trio — junior-to-be Christian Bolhuis — carried with him a varsity track record. Brothers Peter and Jim Vos threw five of the seven frames versus the Bulldogs and earned kudos from Bolyanatz.
“It was really the Vos boys here,” Bolyanatz said, referring to the difference-making elements in the contest. “The pitching, we’re pretty happy with it overall. We’ve given up 31 runs so far this summer, but only 15 of those are earned.
“We were pretty shorthanded this [past] week, but if we get good pitching and defense, we’re going to be in every game.”
That was certainly true in Christian’s other two outings of last week, although neither tilted its way as both Andrew and Tinley Park (8-7) nudged the Knights aside. The Titans climbed past Christian (4-3) in the seventh inning.
Bolyanatz, who described his athletes’ exhibition against the Thunderbolts as “real clean,” was not fazed by either unfavorable outcome.
“We’re getting guys in, getting guys out and seeing what people can do,” he said. “When you do that, those things will happen. We’ve got to have that even-keeled thing [because] that’s the randomness of baseball — sometimes balls that are hit hard will be caught and other times they’ll fall in.”
Spring-season veterans Max Kerfin (.474) and Sean O’Meara (.421) continue to be the Knights’ most influential figures at the plate, but newcomer Pat McCarthy (.417) has also been solid. Jack De Vries (.333), Ron Clark (.333) and Drew Van Buren (.308) have had their shining moments as well.
De Vries, Clark, Scott Niemoth (double) and Josh Novak (sacrifice fly) all had RBI for Christian in its win over Richards.
Bolyanatz likens his current group to the Knights’ spring crew in terms of potential offensive productivity, but he would like to see a little more patience shown during at-bats.
“We had more walks than strikeouts in the spring, but we’ve had fewer walks than in the spring,” Bolyanatz said. “The experienced varsity players are doing what we expect and giving us what we want, and the younger guys are trying to show us something. It’s good for them to see the older guys making some contact with two strikes, putting the ball in play and moving runners along.”
David Ziebarth and Brian Pall combined to give the Mustangs (1-4) a strong mound performance against Rice, and another competent defensive display occurred behind them. Kevin Gallagher made a diving catch in the outfield, Mark Martin turned in a couple good plays at shortstop and Tim Walsh also excelled with the glove.
“There was not a lot of action offensive-wise, but our defense is solid,” Dunneback said. “The biggest thing is believing in it. If our pitchers put it over the plate, they’re not afraid to have it hit because they know we can catch the ball.”
Martin also stroked an RBI single for Evergreen, but the Crusaders snapped a 1-all tie in the bottom of the seventh when sophomore-to-be Andrew Dyke lofted a sacrifice fly. Rice coach John McCarthy was glad to see his club escape the Mustangs’ upset bid.
“They’re a really talented team,” he said of Evergreen. “They play with energy and have guys that play the right way, and they have a dangerous offense that can kind of go off.”
Dunneback thinks small ball will actually be the Mustangs’ calling card next spring.
“Things are moving in the right direction, but you wouldn’t see us winning games 10-1,” he said. “We’re batting 10 in the summer and we’ve got a couple of guys banged up, so we’re doing all right, but in the fall they’ve got to work on their stuff.”
Gallagher and Aaron Green Van Zee also threw credibly for Evergreen in a losing cause last week as Eisenhower downed the Mustangs 5-3. Martin, Walsh, Corey Miller and Sean Miller spearheaded Evergreen’s attack.
The Crusaders (5-4) also bagged three other victories last week, doing so against Oak Lawn (15-1), Shepard (6-5) and Reavis. Administering the lone setback was Lincoln-Way North (5-4).
“All the games we’ve lost were one- and two-run games,” McCarthy said, “so it comes down to maybe three at-bats. We’re getting guys on, but not doing the job of getting a big hit. You’re only as good as your weakest link, so we’re trying to develop everybody and allow them to be successful in the future.”
While the offense has sometimes lacked timely pop, McCarthy has had no complaints about the other facets of Rice’s game.
“I’m very, very impressed with our pitching and defense,” he said. “It’s been outstanding. Baseball’s a tough game, but we’re trying to get them to play with more confidence and a little bit of an edge.
“We’re playing a lot more comfortable now. This [past] week helped out a ton [in that regard].”
Dyke, a midseason call-up to the varsity during the spring, was the Crusaders’ top gun versus Shepard as his three-run homer keyed a four-run second stanza. The Astros also chipped in an error to the rally.
“We’ve had a lot of contributions from younger guys,” McCarthy said.
Shepard fought back and created a 5-all deadlock in the late going, but Rice got the final say by pushing across a tiebreaking marker in the bottom of the sixth. Despite the loss, Astros coach Frank DiFoggio was upbeat.
“I heard through the grapevine that Rice was really playing well,” he said, “so that was one of those games where we could have come in intimidated, but we didn’t. This young group doesn’t care who they’re playing. I can sense they love competing and, for the most part, they’re pretty confident.”
Brett Smith and Adam Gregory had RBI hits for Shepard (4-5), while Kevin Knoerzer and Cole Karnowski each drove in a run with a groundout. Also delivering a solid effort was pitcher Jake Hart, who yielded just two hits over four innings.
The Astros split a pair of games on the final day of the Reavis Wooden Bat Tournament, losing 7-0 to St. Charles East before rebounding to trip up St. Ignatius 5-4.
Shepard had a few chances to break through against the Fighting Saints, including after loading the bases in the seventh inning, but a total of nine strikeouts undermined the Astros’ offense. Hurting Shepard further were a dozen St. Charles East hits.
The Wolfpack led 4-1 through 3½ innings, but they were quieted the rest of the way by sophomore-to-be Logan Couture, who pitched four stanza’s worth of two-hit ball in relief of David Atut. Atut had also been respectable in his three-inning stint on the hill as only one of the three runs he surrendered was earned.
Their joint effort ultimately paid off when the Astros expunged their deficit. The biggest blow among four Shepard hits in the fourth was Knoerzer’s bases-clearing double, which followed safeties by Ryan Eichwedel (RBI), Ricky Mundo (double) and Travis Pruim and a St. Ignatius miscue.
“We fought, took advantage of mistakes and got ourselves a ‘W,’” DiFoggio said. “We’re [usually] the smallest team on the field and we’ve got a lot of baby faces. We don’t have a standout, and considering how young we are and how inexperienced we are, I’m very pleased.”
After dropping the heartbreaker to Rice, the Astros played a second game last Tuesday and fared no better. Andrew saw to that by doling out a 10-3 defeat, a result largely based on the T’bolts’ seven-run uprising in the third that unceremoniously wiped out a 2-0 lead Shepard had built on a pair of passed balls.
“It’s the same MO — if we do lose, we usually have that one bad inning in terms of walks and errors,” DiFoggio said. “We’ve only had about three of those this summer, but you name it and we did it [versus Andrew]. It was an ugly inning, a freshman-baseball inning.
“I know [our young guys’] heads were spinning a little bit, but that’s what summer’s about: to experiment.”
In this contest, experimentation extended to the mound, where DiFoggio gave both Knoerzer and Mark Albrecht an inning of work. They made their boss look good, as they struck out three batters between them and allowed only one hit.
The trio of Mundo, John Korbakes and Tyler Walters toed the rubber for the Astros on Wednesday, and they led their squad to a 6-4 win over Oak Forest. Mundo fanned four during his three-inning stay.
“This was a well-played game by us,” DiFoggio said. “We had no errors and we threw some guys out on the bases.”
That included in the fifth inning, which helped stem a rising Bengals tide. Oak Forest had entered the frame in arrears by five, but it was able to reduce its deficit to just two runs in that at-bat. The Bengals tallied again in the sixth, but were denied in the seventh when Gregory made a diving stop at first base and threw to Walters for the putout.
Albrecht’s three-RBI double was the pivotal hit during Shepard’s four-run second inning and Kevin Carmody also knocked in a teammate with his two-bagger. Albrecht added an RBI single in the fifth and Bobby Peterka drew a bases-loaded walk to complete the Astros’ scoring.
The Spartans experienced some rough going last week, as they secured only one victory in four tries. It was a notable one, however, as Oak Lawn beat St. Rita 6-2 on Thursday.
Spartans coach Bill Gerny admitted his players probably hadn’t seen the Mustangs’ elite mound men, but he felt there was a benefit to be derived from batters having to confront a variety of hurlers.
“When you think of St. Rita, you think one through 25 are good ballplayers,” Gerny said. “We scored in five different innings, and that was a good sign because our guys got a lot of different looks at a lot of different pitchers and nicked them for runs.”
Jake Slusinski (two hits, one RBI, one run) and Brandon Quillin (two hits, stolen base) spearheaded the Oak Lawn attack, while Bobby Beard and Matt Witkowski handled the pitching chores. Beard worked the first six frames and Gerny liked what he saw.
“He challenged each and every one of their hitters,” Gerny said of Beard, who whiffed one and induced eight groundouts, six of which went to second base.
The Spartans’ leader complimented his fielders, too.
“To beat a team like that, you have to play good defense, which we really haven’t been doing,” Gerny said. “We showed we can not only compete with teams like this, but beat them if we do things right.”
That wasn’t happening for the Spartans against the Caravan, at least not in a nightmarish sixth inning. That’s when Mt. Carmel erased a 4-3 Oak Lawn lead by striking for eight runs, a surge fueled by four Spartans errors.
The late-game breakdown prevented Ray Walker from chalking up a pitching win. Walker threw the first five stanzas, struck out seven and gave up three hits. He also walked six, but Gerny still felt his player had gotten shortchanged.
“You couldn’t argue with the results [he delivered],” Gerny said. “He put us in a position to win. I thought our guys held their own and competed a little bit, but after Walker got tired, we brought in guys who couldn’t get [the Caravan] out.
“I was disappointed we lost because it would have been a nice feather in our cap, even in the summer. You use that in the offseason as motivation and carry that into next year.”
Oak Lawn outhit Mt. Carmel 11-7, something Gerny deemed vital in the aftermath of the Spartans’ sizable loss to Brother Rice.
“If we have another game like that, guys are really going to start questioning themselves and lose interest,” he said. “So I still saw the [Caravan] game as a positive. I was happy with it.”
Mitch Swatek (two RBI), Kevin Zurek (two runs) and Matt Dunne (double, one run) all had two hits for Oak Lawn, while Joe Dodaro contributed one hit and two RBI.
Quillin, who played shortstop against Mt. Carmel and set up behind the dish versus St. Rita, took the mound on Friday and gave the Spartans four strong innings in what eventually became a 5-4 triumph for Morton.
Quillin wasn’t the only Oak Lawn athlete who was trying something new. Swatek donned the catcher’s gear and performed admirably over four innings, even throwing a baserunner out.
“You get guys in the mind-frame that they can play any position,” Gerny said. “That way, nobody’s ever out of position.”
Swatek also smacked an RBI double for the Spartans. Andrew McFee led Oak Lawn with a pair of hits and two RBI.
By far, the Spartans’ toughest outing came against Rice, which used a grand slam to spark a five-run assault in the opening inning and start out on its way to a resounding victory.
“Before you could blink, we were down 5-0 and it’s hard to battle back,” said Gerny, whose team generated just four hits and committed three errors. “They beat us in all phases of the game.”
A number of Oak Lawn players were absent due to their attendance at a showcase event, but Gerny acknowledged that as a baseball fact of life in the summertime.
“Some programs are better equipped to handle that,” he said. “Switching gears from the spring to the summer is a challenge to coaches. Part of you says, ‘Go for the win,’ but then you realize you have to get [several different] guys in.
“It’s a fine line you’ve got to walk, but being experienced is being in a game.”
McFee accounted for the Spartans’ only RBI with his fifth-inning groundout.
Vikings coach Pete Lotus can commiserate with Gerny, particularly since St. Laurence encountered some rough patches of its own during the first two weeks of summer play.
After defeating Brother Rice (4-3) and Mt. Carmel (8-6) in their first two games, the Vikings have since gone into a tailspin. While suffering three setbacks in a row isn’t unusual for most prep baseball squads, it’s something relatively foreign to St. Laurence in recent years.
The Vikings’ trouble area was easy to see: a shortage of batting punch. St. Laurence plated just two runs against Reavis and only one versus De La Salle, outputs that tagged Vikings hurlers with defeats even though neither the Rams nor Meteors accrued more than three runs themselves.
The Vikings’ run total increased to four last Wednesday against St. Rita, but the Mustangs prevailed by a 9-4 count.
“We’re not playing the best overall,” Lotus said. “There’ve been some good spots, but it’s been challenging. Guys are in and out [of the lineup] a lot, and the randomness of the summer is a challenge. That’s something we’ve discussed a whole bunch.
“We’ve thrown the ball pretty well and I feel pretty confident we’re going to have a good staff [next year], but we haven’t put it all together yet. Almost all of our [spring] lineup is coming back, but I think our new guys coming up are unsure of things. We haven’t played with a full group yet, so once they get around the older guys, hopefully they can learn from them.”
Like Gerny, Lotus sometimes finds it difficult to accept losing in the summer, even though he understands June and July are essentially extended training periods.
“It’s hard to take that competitiveness away and say whether we win or lose isn’t a big deal,” Lotus said. “But the biggest thing we have to do is learn. That’s what summer is for — to learn to get better so we don’t make the same mistakes next spring that we’re making now.
“We’ve been very inconsistent, which I think is the worst thing you can be in baseball, but we’ve got to keep working and staying positive. We’ve always had pretty good summers [in the past], so hopefully it gets better.”
A definite bright spot for St. Laurence (2-3) last Wednesday was junior-to-be John Riordan’s three-inning pitching stint. St. Rita went scoreless against Riordan and managed just one infield single while fanning three times.
“That was a very big positive,” Lotus said. “He was throwing all of his pitches for strikes and I thought he looked tremendous.”
The Vikes held a 3-0 lead early on, but the Mustangs got those runs back and then piled up several more after Riordan exited. St. Laurence collected only five hits, with Rob Gutierrez (double), Rich Lamb and Anthony Chimera each driving in a run with his. Kevin Aderman had an RBI on a groundout.
Five hits were all the Vikings could muster against De La Salle, too, and their lone tally was brought in on a seventh-inning walk. Brad Wood and Mike Kornacker both poked doubles for St. Laurence.
The two all-area performers also pitched two innings apiece and registered seven strikeouts between them.
The Chargers were still in search of their initial summer win as the current week got underway after absorbing three more losses last week. Stagg’s best performance came against Andrew, but the Chargers got saddled with a 6-2 defeat because they stroked only four hits.
Also beating Stagg (0-6) were St. Rita (10-4) and Marist (7-0). When asked if his athletes were becoming a bit anxious about garnering a victory, Chargers coach Matt O’Neill said he didn’t yet sense any level of frustration.
For sure, he’s exercising patience himself.
“I think guys are trying to do what we’re asking them to do,” O’Neill said. “That’s all you can ask. We’ll always try to get better at little things.”
Ethan Glaza (sacrifice fly) and Joe Van Nieuwenhuyse (hit by pitch) had Stagg’s RBI versus Andrew.
St. Rita jumped out to a 4-0 advantage over the Chargers in the first inning last Tuesday, and the Mustangs’ lead quickly grew to an insurmountable 8-1. Stagg’s offense was serviceable on this day, but its eight hits and six walks were overshadowed by five fielding errors.
“We also made a lot of mental errors, where we would throw to the wrong base, and we just didn’t seem to be into it,” O’Neill said. “And it wasn’t the younger guys making the mistakes against St. Rita.”
Nick Nowak’s groundout and a double-play ball supplied the Chargers’ runs in the first and sixth stanzas, respectively. Nowak also had one of Stagg’s hits in its loss to Marist. Hitting safely as well in that latter contest were Jimmy Farnan and Mike Bibbiano.
“We didn’t really have any scoring opportunities,” O’Neill said. “It’s kind of the two extremes for us — [some] guys are hitting most of the time and [other] guys aren’t hitting at all. There’s really no one in the middle.
“For a lot of guys, this is their training camp. That’s why we do this summer [baseball], so we don’t have to judge everything on what we see in the gym [in the spring].”
The RedHawks’ bats weren’t really explosive, either, but the six hits they notched were made far more damaging by the 13 free passes issued by Chargers hurlers.
“The big difference from last year to this year is we don’t have the pitching depth,” O’Neill said. “That’s going to be the big thing — finding a Ricky Rogers [type] who can keep us in the game without overpowering stuff.”