Knights are already in midseason form
While the spring baseball campaign officially ended less than a week ago, Chicago Christian’s summer squad is already operating at midseason form.
At least that was true five games into the schedule, as the Knights picked up wins in each. Included among the conquered foes were Walther Christian (9-1), Romeoville (10-0), Stagg (7-5), Andrew (8-5) and Illiana Christian (10-9).
Since rain interrupted play for a couple days at a number of sites, Chicago Christian’s ability to see action that many times was in itself noteworthy. Even more surprising has been the manner in which the Knights have prevailed.
“The offense has been very solid so far,” said coach Eric Brauer, whose squad’s biggest weakness in the spring was a somewhat meager attack. “We’re getting a lot of contributions from a lot of different guys. We’re playing pretty well and I’m pleased with it.”
Christian is returning 12 players from its 17-man spring roster, so the varsity experience is an obvious plus.
“We haven’t seen any real dominant pitching,” Brauer said. “You’re not going to see a lot of aces because they’re playing travel ball. That contributes [to our production] a little bit, too, but our seniors are really leading well with a good attitude.”
One of those seniors-to-be, Christian Bolhuis, has been the ringleader thus far. His game-winning double in the bottom of the seventh last Friday against Illiana was part of a 9-for-18 start at the plate for Bolhuis, who is also 2-0 with a 0.00 earned-run average over six innings as a pitcher.
Ron Clark and Adam Schoenle are two other springtime vets Brauer cited as reliable contributors in the early going. Brauer admitted that opportunities for newcomers might not be too plentiful, but one individual chipping in versus the Vikings was sophomore-to-be Josh Hill, who went 2-for-3.
While beating their longtime rival was nice, the Knights’ victories over Stagg and Andrew gave Brauer greater satisfaction.
“Those are games we have typically not won — it was only the second time we’ve beaten Stagg in the summer and the first time we’ve beaten Andrew,” he said. “They have more bodies, [so] if we’re missing a couple guys, that makes a big difference.”
Christian’s lineup was pretty much intact, but the Chargers’ wasn’t as coach Matt O’Neill went with a junior-heavy group. That didn’t diminish the Knights’ accomplishment in his eyes, though — O’Neill acknowledged “they threw some good arms at us.”
Besides Bolhuis, Christian’s best pitchers to date have been Trevor Wolterink, Jack De Vries and Tom Hassel. Only the latter is a newcomer.
“The biggest thing this summer is we’ve been focused on attitude — attitude about themselves, about the team, about what we’re trying to do,” Brauer said. “We’ve had good buy-in from the guys.”
And that, Brauer says, is vital to the Knights’ well-being.
“If we don’t show up and compete in the summer, we have no chance,” he said. “We are battling that [size differential].”
Christian is annually the smallest school participating in the Illinois Baseball Coaches Association summer league, and for many years it sat out completely. That changed upon Brauer’s arrival in Palos Heights, and the Knights have steadily improved each season.
“[The mindset years ago] was, ‘Let’s show up and see what happens,’” he said. “We don’t fight that battle anymore. And I have no doubt in my mind that winning games in the summer carries over into the [following] spring.
“We’ve won 160 games the last six years in the spring. That speaks for itself in terms of how we go about things.”
The Chargers were one of those teams negatively affected by last week’s wet weather, as the meeting with Christian was their lone outing.
Unlike Brauer, O’Neill has some definite holes to plug heading into 2015. His three regular outfielders from this spring and three of his four infielders must be replaced.
“We’ve got three guys at first base who can swing it a little bit,” O’Neill said. “We’ll have to move one of them to the outfield and another will probably DH. I think there’s some ability level [elsewhere], but it’s the same thing for us every summer: We try to fill the open spots.”
What O’Neill may miss most about the program’s recent graduates isn’t measurable statistically. Rather, it was a group intangible: cohesiveness and the ability to play as a team.
“I hope these seniors-to-be learned that from [the departed guys],” O’Neill said, “and I hope they play with some confidence. It never hurts when you step on the field that you feel you have a chance to win.”
Multiple-game series are not typically the domain of high school baseball teams, but the Crusaders and Marian Catholic bucked that trend last week by squaring off three times.
Only one of those affairs was originally scheduled. However, Brother Rice was searching for games after one against St. Laurence was halted prematurely by rain and another versus De La Salle was cancelled altogether due to the Meteors’ extended stay in the Class 3A state tournament.
While the Crusaders triumphed just once, their two losses certainly didn’t rank as embarrassing. Rice dropped 2-0 and 2-1 verdicts.
“That’s one thing we were really happy about — the pitching was there and we played good defense,” Crusaders coach John McCarthy said. “We had some [good] arms at the lower levels.”
Sophomore-to-be Ryan Kutt continued to display the form he did as a contributing varsity freshman, while newcomers Jack Nelligan and Jack Duzek also gave Rice a lift on the mound. Two other new arrivals, Jake Ridgway and Zac Sefcik, stepped forward offensively in the Crusaders’ triumph over the Spartans, the former doing so with a couple of doubles.
“There’s a lot of shuffling going on,” McCarthy said. “We want to give everybody some time and let them showcase their ability, and guys are trying to find out what their roles are and are [sometimes] pressing a little bit. When you press, it’s tough to play good baseball.
“There’s a learning curve and we’ll take some lumps, but we’ve got to be patient.”
One plus is that Rice’s freshman and sophomore squads both earned Chicago Catholic League Blue titles in 2014.
“That shows they can do it under adversity,” McCarthy said of his younger players. “It helps [them] knowing we expect to succeed and that’s what we expect every year, but it’s a burden, too, because the guys haven’t done it [on varsity]. We need to get them confidence and give guys a lot of different opportunities, but we’re very excited.”
The Crusaders’ matchup with St. Laurence was stopped after four innings last Tuesday. The Vikings were ahead 1-0 at that juncture, courtesy of Anthony Rios’ RBI groundout. Preceding that play were Tommy Farrell’s walk, a stolen base and balk.
Like McCarthy, St. Laurence boss Pete Lotus’ biggest source of gratification was, understandably, pitching and defense. Junior Anthony Robles did not surrender a hit over four frames and fanned two.
Robles’ emergence would be a welcome sight for the Vikings following the graduation of staff aces Mike Kornacker and Brad Wood, who spent a combined seven seasons on the varsity roster.
“It is different [this summer] and there’s definitely going to be some new guys [in the rotation],” said Lotus, whose two most tested hurlers are Frank Greco and John Riordan.
“I definitely think the past couple summers we had a much more definitive view on what kids could do. It was pretty much cut-and-dried that it was those guys who would play certain positions, and you realize [now] there’s some things you took for granted that we’d be able to do because we’d done it before.
“There’s a lot more competition [this summer] and that’s a healthy thing. We’re getting back to [teaching] a lot of the very simple things and part of that is really fun.”
While this isn’t the first time Lotus has had to do some rebuilding, he said the current situation is reminiscent of what he dealt with his first couple years on the job.
“We had tough, scrappy kids that found ways to win,” Lotus said.
St. Laurence’s rookies, while new to the varsity, aren’t strangers to success. The Vikings’ freshman and sophomore clubs both finished second, one game behind Catholic League Blue champion Brother Rice.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much of a hiccup in how we play the game,” Lotus said. “We’ll really try and stress development. We’re in kind of a gray area, but I’m excited to see how it goes.
“I want our guys to know we’re not necessarily up-and-comers — they have a certain level to uphold. I hope we take that next step forward.”
Despite jumping out to a 5-0 lead last Thursday, the Astros were unable to close the deal against TF South. Instead, the Rebels rallied to pocket a 12-6 victory.
Two younger Shepard pitchers got roughed up, largely because of their own largesse — a six-run TF South fourth stanza, for example, featured only two hits but opened with four straight free passes. However, Astros coach Frank DiFoggio adopted a straightforward take on things.
“Now, the nervousness is gone,” he said.
Jake Fredrick (RBI double) and Travis Pruim (two-run single) were trigger men at the plate for Shepard. Also doing well was pitcher Tyler Walters, who missed all of the spring campaign but threw two solid innings versus the Rebels.
“It was a typical summer-league game — some things were good, some things were bad,” DiFoggio said. “I didn’t have a lot of guys there, but that’s something I’ll be dealing with all summer. Most of the guys I have [on the roster] are dual- and three-sport athletes or on travel teams.”
And truth be known, DiFoggio doesn’t mind working with younger players in June and July.
“I know everybody looks at summer differently, but I think it’s about getting new guys accustomed to playing on the varsity,” he said. “Summer’s about learning about guys, getting comfortable and growing confidence. This time of the year it’s about delayed gratification — you don’t worry about wins or losses or if you go 0-for-4.”
Although Pruim, Brett Smith, Ken Gorski and Ricky Mundo were the only springtime veterans available to DiFoggio on Thursday, it will be a far different story next March. With 13 returnees, DiFoggio admitted there “aren’t going to be many question marks going into next year.”
As has been the case for a decade, Shepard’s experienced players will be swinging wooden bats this summer. Pitching-wise, projected 2015 leaders Smith and Adam Gregory will see limited mound duty.
With school still in session last week, the Mustangs have delayed the start of their summer season. And even when play does get underway, it won’t last long — Evergreen Park coach Mark Smyth plans to pull the plug around Independence Day.
“We’re going to play 10 games, then be in the Lockport Tournament,” he said. “Most of the kids are on a travel team and the school year’s going so late as it is, let them have their summer a little bit.”
Smyth feels that, despite the shortened schedule, the Mustangs will be able to accomplish what is necessary.
“We’ve got to find a couple position guys,” he said. “That’s what summer’s come down to so you can hit the ground running in the spring.”