Liking what he sees
Knights coach Brauer pleased with progress
First impressions were quite favorable.
Although the summer baseball season was already four weeks old, Chicago Christian coach Eric Brauer had yet to see his Knights in action before last week. Following his club’s sectional-semifinal loss in the spring Class 2A state tournament, Brauer prepared for a trip to the Dominican Republic.
There, he helped coach a college baseball team representing Athletes in Action, which competed against a half-dozen different universities during a five-week stay. Brauer once played for AIA, which combines sports with Christian ministry.
“It was cool to come back and give back to the organization,” he said. “It was a very special experience.”
Guiding the Knights in Brauer’s absence was assistant coach Alex Bolyanatz, who oversaw an 8-3 start to the summer campaign. Upon his return to the area, Brauer watched Christian complete its regular schedule on a high note by winning three times last week.
“I felt confident leaving it in his hands,” Brauer said, referring to Bolyanatz. “For the coaching staff, we’re very comfortable with who we are as a program and what we’re capable of. We’ve tried to stay consistent in our approach and we’ve shown we’re a quality program.”
The Knights (11-3) posted a plus-.500 regular-season ledger for the fifth consecutive summer, an achievement that lends credence to Brauer’s claim. Nevertheless, he said he’s usually somewhat surprised by the winning simply because Christian, like most other teams, considers summer a time for experimentation, in part because of revolving personnel.
“We lost eight kids from the spring — you see who’s leaving [each year] and wonder how you’re going to fill holes,” Brauer said. “[But] regardless of who you have, you have to show up to compete.
“We feel pretty good about some of the good things we’ve done [this summer]. We need [to still find] some leaders in the infield, but we’ve got some nice pieces. Some of the younger guys have found roles on our team.”
A couple of those younger guys, Ron Clark and Scott Niemoth, were the Knights’ offensive ringleaders in the squad’s most satisfying victory of last week, a 5-3 decision over a hot Brother Rice club on Wednesday. Clark poked a couple singles, Niemoth contributed one, and between them the duo accounted for four of Christian’s RBI. Jack De Vries drove in the Knights’ other marker with a groundout.
Christian prevailed despite totaling only four hits. Those safeties were supplemented by an equal number of free passes.
“The hits were real timely and it was definitely a good win,” Brauer said. “This was two summers in a row we beat these guys.”
Earning the pitching triumph was senior-to-be Josh Novak, who worked six innings and held a potent Crusaders lineup pretty well in check despite a defense behind him that was guilty of four miscues.
“He did a great job of staying composed and not letting the errors get to him,” Brauer said of his hurler.
One of Novak’s highlights was a full-count strikeout while Rice had the bags filled in the sixth inning. When asked if his guys might have taken the Knights a bit lightly, Crusaders coach John McCarthy said no.
“It had more to do with what they were doing right than what we did wrong,” he said. “I know we have great respect for their program — they’re a well-coached team and a scrappy bunch. They played with a little more intensity and they found a way to be better [than us] on that given day.”
Adrian Gonzalez pitched commendably for Rice (13-6) in a losing cause.
Also taken down by Christian last week were Marist (13-6) and Bremen (11-7) on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
“Twenty-nine runs for a week — I’ll definitely take that for three games,” Brauer said.
A five-run first frame got the Knights off and running versus the RedHawks. Niemoth’s bases-clearing double was the pivotal blow, but Max Kerfin’s RBI single was one of three other hits generated by Christian in the stanza. The Knights also picked up a run after Marist misplayed a couple balls.
Then just to make sure the RedHawks had no illusions about staging a comeback, Christian extended its advantage to 12-1 by erupting for seven more runs in its half of the third. De Vries and Mike Santarelli both stroked two-run singles, Sean O’Meara’s groundout plated another marker, and the Knights capitalized further on a pair of two-out errors.
Interestingly, Marist’s defensive struggles occurred just one day after the RedHawks had played one of their finest all-around games in what became a 6-0 win over Oak Forest.
“We’ve preached to the kids about consistency, but we go from playing probably our best game of the summer to one of our poorer ones in [the span of] 24 hours,” Marist coach Tom Fabrizio said. “Are we going to have bad games? Yes, but they outplayed us in every facet of the game.
“We swung the bats OK, but we were kind of lackadaisical. We didn’t pitch very well, we made a few errors, and we weren’t taking the game very serious. It was like it was the last game of the season and they wanted to get it over with.”
Trevor Wolderink tossed the first four innings for Christian and surrendered two earned runs. While Novak and Christian Bolhuis return as the cornerstones of the Knights’ 2014 mound corps, Brauer hopes Wolderink will also emerge as a reliable pitcher next spring.
“For us, our recipe [for annual success] has been to have five legitimate arms who can come into games and get guys out,” Brauer said.
Starring for the Knights in their conquest of Bremen was Pat McCarthy, who went 3-for-3 with a walk and four RBI. Santarelli pitched in with two hits and two RBI, while Clark and Kerfin each had an RBI single.
Christian tallied in six of seven innings. Bolhuis pitched the first four frames to gain the victory on the hill.
Although they couldn’t upend Chicago Christian, the Crusaders did have a satisfying week overall as they defeated St. Laurence (9-6) and Oak Forest (6-2) in other outings.
While McCarthy is content with what Rice has accomplished this summer, he doesn’t want his athletes too zeroed in on the win-loss totals.
“The winning and losing, you almost have to take that out of it,” he said. “The biggest thing is us coming out with focus. We have no right — and I don’t think any team does — to come out without passion and intensity. Those are things that can’t take days off, and you can’t turn it on and off.
“That’s one thing we’re trying to strive for every day. We’re just trying to reach our potential, whatever that may be, and play to the best of our abilities. We put our guys through a tough schedule for a purpose: to really buy in and sacrifice what they need to in terms of energy.”
As an illustration of what he meant, McCarthy pointed to a 3-2 loss to Lincoln-Way North earlier in the summer. The verdict went the Phoenix’s way, but McCarthy felt the Crusaders had “played the best we could play.”
In fact, he thought a steady dose of winning might actually hinder development to some degree.
“Winning cures a lot of things and gets rid of a lot of the details,” McCarthy said. “When you have success, it’s harder to keep pressure on yourself to get better.”
Getting better is a concept Fabrizio wants his players to embrace, too.
While the summer of 2013 certainly hasn’t been horrible for the RedHawks and their coach doesn’t place much emphasis on Marist’s 6-7 ledger, Fabrizio desires to see his guys deliver more performances like the one against Oak Forest. Robert Hovey went the distance on the mound and was supported by solid displays both in the field and at the plate.
“The way I envisioned our team being able to be successful, that’s what we did [here],” Fabrizio said. “This was probably the first time [Hovey’s] been able to hammer the strike zone. We made every play on defense and we executed offensively — we put down bunts and stole some bases.”
Keying Marist’s offense were Blake Bieniek, Rich Kairis and Pat Meehan.
Some of the football-playing RedHawks returned to the diamond against Christian, but there were enough missing persons on Wednesday that Fabrizio brought four freshmen aboard for Marist’s encounter with Shepard.
The youth-infused RedHawks didn’t perform badly, just not quite good enough to down the Astros. Instead, Shepard bagged a 2-1 triumph.
Mike Trbozic and Eric Hoffard supplied Marist with decent pitching, but the RedHawks’ attack was stagnant. It was also mistake-prone — one runner was thrown out at home on the front end of a double steal and a leadoff single in the seventh inning was wasted when the batter ventured too far off first base and got tagged out.
“That’s not exactly the way we wanted to end the season,” Fabrizio said. “I feel like there are kids playing themselves onto the  team and other kids playing themselves off of it. I don’t call anybody out by name, but I point out what I see [go wrong] and remind them they’re being evaluated by the coaching staff constantly.”
Five errors were at the root of the Vikings’ struggles against Brother Rice last Thursday. Two of those, plus two walks gave the Crusaders a first-inning boost that Rice turned into a five-run rally.
In addition to benefiting from St. Laurence’s fielding mishaps, the Crusaders also coaxed a total of nine free passes on the day.
“It was a little bit of a tough day,” Vikings coach Pete Lotus said. “We played better as the game went on, but it was a rough start.”
While St. Laurence (10-5) didn’t conclude its regular schedule the way Lotus would have preferred, he didn’t think that would be a negative influence on his club as it began postseason play this past Monday.
“In the spring, yes; in the summer, no,” Lotus said. “We had 10 guys in Georgia [last] week, so the lineup we’ll put out [in the tournament] will be drastically different. It’ll probably be the first time we’ve had all our guys together.”
The Vikings were indeed adequately prepared for their initial playoff test as they beat Shepard 10-1 this past Monday and earned a Tuesday date versus the winner between Oak Lawn and Homewood-Flossmoor.
After collecting a forfeit win last Tuesday when Guerin Prep didn’t have enough players to field a complete team, St. Laurence whipped St. Rita 11-3 on Wednesday behind a big effort from John Riordan, who had two hits, two RBI and five stolen bases.
Also making their presences felt were Mike Kornacker (3-for-4 with a double, two RBI), Frank Greco (two hits, including an RBI double), Rich Lamb (two-run single), Rob Gutierrez (RBI double) and Sean Burnett (RBI single). The Vikings, who racked up 10 hits, tallied nine of their runs between the third and fourth stanzas.
“It’s always a little different against the [Chicago Catholic League] Blue [teams], whenever it is,” Lotus said. “We were swinging the bats pretty well all day and played pretty well defensively.
“We’ve been playing a lot better lately. For the most part, I was encouraged by the way we hit. Our younger guys have gotten a pretty good amount of opportunities this summer, and it’s good to see them take advantage of it.”
Handling the mound chores for St. Laurence against the Mustangs were Gutierrez and Steve Schultz. The former, who also earned the playoff victory versus Shepard, threw the first five innings.
The Spartans were unable to overcome a nightmarish eight-error exhibition last Wednesday and, as a result, got pinned with a setback by Mt. Carmel.
The game was tied at 2-all through four innings, but Oak Lawn’s defense sprang a leak in the fifth and sixth frames to shift momentum firmly in the Caravan’s direction. Mt. Carmel plated five runs in the latter stanza to seize command.
“We have to do a better job finishing games,” Spartans coach Bill Gerny said. “I’m not sure if the players get nervous because they haven’t been in a position to beat a top team like that, but I feel that we were really pressing in those last innings. The bad errors and mental breakdowns sort of snowballed and we didn’t know how to right the ship.”
Starter Marcus Montes pitched out of some jams during his three-inning stint, but relievers Chris Donato and Alan Spies weren’t as fortunate in sidestepping trouble. Mt. Carmel scored eight runs off Donato in 2 1/3 innings, but only three of those were earned.
“Both pitchers did OK, but our defense let them down,” Gerny said.
Kevin Zurek and Matt Dunne each had a first-inning RBI for Oak Lawn (6-7). Zurek batted .382 during the regular summer campaign and tallied 10 runs.
Things went much better for the Spartans on Friday, as they routed TF South 14-4. The Rebels had defeated Oak Lawn by that same margin (13-3) in an earlier summer confrontation.
“It seems that over the past year, spring and summer, we’ve struggled with TF South,” Gerny said. “They always hit the ball really well against us and we’ve never beaten them, so this game was a step in a positive direction.”
Joe Dodaro went 3-for-4 with an RBI to pace a robust Spartans offense, while Mitch Swatek included a homer among his two hits and finished with four RBI. Dunne (triple, three RBI) and Brandon Quillin (walk, three runs) joined Swatek (.382, team-high 13 RBI for the summer) at the two-hit plateau.
Dunne wound up the regular season with a hefty .441 average, while Quillin posted a .400 mark, as well as a .512 on-base percentage. Gerny was especially happy to see the latter flourish throughout the course of the summer.
“He has really developed into an effective leadoff hitter,” Gerny said of Quillin. “He sees at least four [or] five pitches per at-bat, and he’s very comfortable drawing walks and setting the table for the rest of the lineup.”
Oak Lawn scored in four different innings, with a six-run sixth representing its largest output. The Spartans garnered five runs in the second.
After surviving a rough first inning, pitcher Ray Walker lasted three more and gained the victory. He scattered four hits, struck out five and walked four.
“If Walker can keep the ball down in the strike zone and avoid walks, he could have a really good spring [in 2014],” Gerny said.
Ivan Georgelos tossed two scoreless innings of relief while fanning four and allowing just one hit. Gerny deemed it the best showing of the summer for Georgelos.
Just as they did in the spring, the Bulldogs closed out their regular schedule in a positive way. In the summer, that meant logging triumphs over Reavis (12-2) and Stagg (3-2) last Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
“Guys are feeling a lot more confident right now,” Richards assistant coach Jeff Kortz said. “A lot of these guys have played together for a few years, and I don’t think they get down on themselves. They dig in and do what they have to.
“And we’re not a one-man show. Everybody’s contributing.”
While the Bulldogs (13-5) have long been known for their offensive exploits, Kortz believes the primary influence this summer has been a steady defense.
“We’re catching the ball,” he said. “When you do that, you win ballgames. We extended some [opponents’] innings in the spring by [sometimes] not catching the ball and not throwing strikes, but they’re going and getting the ball in the outfield [now] and they’re attacking the ball in the infield.”
That deftness with the gloves proved particularly helpful against the Chargers, who scored in each of the first two innings and took a 2-0 lead into the fourth. The Bulldogs’ sticks never did become very dangerous weapons, but Nick Mejia provided the only hit that mattered as he cleared the bags with his double in that inning and gave Richards its margin of success.
Adrian Garcia and Andrew Schramm shared the pitching duties for the Bulldogs. Stagg (3-12) used Nick Gerzon’s sacrifice fly and C.J. Casey’s double to score its runs.
Peter Angelos (double), Trace Moustakas and Jake Wimmer (bunt single) also hit safely for the Chargers in the early going, but their attack grew noticeably quiet after that.
“We really didn’t threaten later — we had no hits after the second inning,” Stagg coach Matt O’Neill said. “Obviously, that’s an issue. We really didn’t have anybody step up hitting-wise [this summer] except the guys we kind of figured on. No one was in the middle.
“I don’t think this summer we’ve seen great pitching. We had some good pitches to hit, so I don’t know what to attribute it to.”
The Chargers have lost four one-run games and often failed to make much noise. One theory is that they’ve approached things somewhat differently than they might in the spring.
“We’ve had 12 or 13 guys in the order most games,” O’Neill said. “And in some situations, maybe we bunt in the spring [to set up scoring chances], whereas I want to see what guys can do in the summer and let them swing away.”
Due to the question marks still surrounding his team’s attack, O’Neill stated only Angelos and Brett Stratinsky had spots nailed down for themselves heading into 2014.
“As a coach, you’d like to have more than two of the eight positions settled,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve had that many open spots at the end of the summer.”
There was no nail-biting required for the Bulldogs on Tuesday, as they rolled over Reavis behind Chris Zeschke’s 4-for-5 effort at the plate and some solid pitching work. Ryan Thompson went the first three innings to notch the win.
Kortz attributed Richards’ productive summer, in part, to a carryover from the spring. Even with that in mind, though, he said head coach Brian Wujcik was pleasantly surprised by what was achieved through 18 contests.
“He knew [last year’s] juniors could play better than they did in the spring,” Kortz said, “but he didn’t know it would be this quick.”
The Chargers concluded their schedule on a good note by blowing past Eisenhower 7-2 last Thursday behind Chris Yaros (three hits, including a double, four RBI). His two-bagger was part of a four-run getaway for Stagg in the opening inning.
“He’s a big, strong kid, a lineman in football and a wrestler, and he’s got some pop in his bat,” O’Neill said of Yaros.
Mike Bibbiano (double, fielder’s-choice RBI), Connor Bartle (RBI single) and Fernando Perez (RBI single) were other notables in the Chargers’ 10-hit attack.
“We show it at times,” O’Neill said, referring to offensive potency. “It was good to see some of these younger guys get a chance to hit with guys on base.”
Angelos held the Cardinals hitless through the first three innings and whiffed four en route to the pitching triumph. That followed credible work by Brendan Kivlehan, Ryan Donnelly and Kenon Kizlaitis on the hill opposite Richards.
“We’re pitching well,” O’Neill said. “[Against the Bulldogs] we threw 75 percent strikes on the day and not one of the first three guys [in the fourth inning] hit the ball hard. If we get the pitching [in the postseason], I think we can get a couple games.”
Before bowing out of the playoffs this past Monday, the Astros completed their regular season with a 2-1 week. Wins were registered at the expense of Eisenhower (7-3) and Marist (2-1), while Bremen doled out an 11-4 defeat on Thursday.
Cole Jones’ RBI groundout and Tyler Walters’ theft of home accounted for all of Shepard’s production in its victory over the RedHawks. Walters also teamed with Ricky Mundo on the mound to hold Marist’s offense under wraps.
Brendan Hermann and Kevin Carmody were the headliners versus Eisenhower as they drove in five of the Astros’ runs. Senior-to-be Hermann included a two-run triple among his three hits, while Carmody chased home three teammates with his fourth-inning triple.
And the clash with Bremen was close through four innings. The Braves left Shepard (7-9) in the dust after that as they turned a 5-4 lead into an insurmountable 11-4 edge.
“There were a lot of infield hits for Bremen,” Astros coach Frank DiFoggio said. “Nothing real dramatic. For the most part, for the week we played well.”
The veteran skipper felt the same way about the season as a whole, which featured Shepard employing just three other seniors-to-be besides Hermann: Jake Hart, Sam Hermanas and Kevin Knoerzer.
“Those four seniors did as much to develop these younger guys as I did,” DiFoggio said. “They were very positive and supportive, and they were patient in helping guys along. I was very impressed with their character.”
Evergreen Park did not have any games scheduled for the last week of the regular season. Information on Sandburg’s activities was unavailable.