New names keeping Vikings formidable
Tom Farrell, Dan Heiden, Anthony Robles — those individuals may be ones opposing batters eventually come to fear.
Foes probably breathed a sigh of relief when St. Laurence bid farewell to pitchers Mike Kornacker and Brad Wood this spring. Those two, along with 2013 graduate Zach Lewis, comprised one of the Chicagoland area’s most talented pitching rotations of recent vintage, so their departures were undoubtedly welcomed outside of Burbank.
But while the names are changing, the Vikings’ fortunes may not be, at least if last week’s summer results are any sort of accurate barometer. Farrell, Heiden and Robles all took turns starring on the hill as St. Laurence went 3-1 and stayed well above .500 for the season.
Farrell, who teamed with Heiden the week before to stymie Class 4A runner-up St. Rita, returned to the mound last Wednesday and provided the Vikings with four innings of one-hit ball versus De La Salle. He spiced his performance with four strikeouts as St. Laurence went on to claim a 9-1 victory.
Robles, who had looked sharp in a rain-shortened season-opener against Brother Rice, was in command again on Tuesday as he fanned five and did not surrender a hit over three innings, a showing that laid the groundwork for a 6-1 win over Marian Catholic.
As for Heiden, he failed to gain a triumph after the Vikings’ sloppy sixth inning in the field sabotaged a 4-1 lead and propelled Lockport to a come-from-behind 7-4 victory last Monday. Nevertheless, St. Laurence coach Pete Lotus liked what he saw from his young hurler, as well as Farrell and Robles.
“Outside of that [one inning on Monday], we played good games,” Lotus said. “Finding that consistency is tough in the summer, but I think we’ve worked hard and I really think we’re going to be able to pitch pretty well and play [good] defense [next spring].
“Dan Heiden’s been a very effective pitcher at the lower levels by keeping pitches down and throwing strikes, and he’s going to be good for us. Anthony Robles is still growing into his body a little bit, but he’s a lefty with tremendous movement on his ball. [And] Tom Farrell, who played with the sophomores as a freshman, throws pretty hard.”
That trio will join all-area second-teamer Frank Greco and senior-to-be John Riordan to form the heart of the Vikings’ 2015 pitching corps. Riordan combined with Mike Munoz to hamstring Oak Lawn and complete St. Laurence’s week by spearheading an 11-1 victory on Thursday.
While the Vikings’ sticks warmed up later in the week, Lotus still described his club’s offense as a work in progress. Part of the reason, he said, is that hitters have a more difficult adjustment period when first elevated to the varsity.
“You don’t see as consistent pitching on the lower levels — if they’re good, [those pitchers are] up with the varsity,” Lotus said. “And the bats are so drastically different.
“Before, you could get away with hitting the ball off the end of the bat and still get a base hit. It’s definitely an advantage for teams that can bunt and run the bases.”
St. Laurence has long been competent in those areas, and the signs point to a continuation of that trend. In the De La Salle game, two stolen bases set the table for the Vikings’ initial round of scoring, which was realized on Mike Finger’s single. RBI from Riordan (sacrifice fly) and Sean Burnette (single) followed to put St. Laurence — which had been hitless over the first three stanzas — in control.
Nick Verta (two hits, including a double), Robles (two-run single), Jack Sullivan (RBI single), Jimmy Burnette (RBI single) and Kevin Aderman also hit safely for the Vikes.
“We know we’re not going to hit the way we did this spring, but we’re trying to get the guys to be confident,” Lotus said.
St. Laurence totaled 10 hits in its triumph over Oak Lawn. Farrell (RBI double, three runs), Aderman (two-run single), Joe Madera (two-RBI double) and Riordan (RBI) each stroked a pair of hits, while Rich Lamb and Robles drove in three runs between them.
Hitting heroes opposite Marian were Sean Burnette (3-for-3 with a two-run double), Verta (3-for-4), Finger (two hits, including an RBI double), Farrell and Greco.
Only against Lockport did St. Laurence not enjoy much success, but Lotus felt the Vikings’ five-hit output was slightly misleading.
“We hit some balls hard but right at them,” he said.
Farrell (two hits, one RBI), Aderman (two hits, one RBI) and Finger (two-run single) were St. Laurence’s catalysts. The Vikings played shorthanded the entire week as they were without those athletes who are also involved with football.
“As a whole it makes us stronger because other guys get a chance to play more innings,” Lotus said.
A glance at the Crusaders’ 3-4 ledger after three weeks of the summer schedule might lead one to believe they’re struggling. That’s true only in an offensive sense.
While Brother Rice coach John McCarthy continues to search for “who’s going to get the timely hit,” no worries are attached to the other two facets of the Crusaders’ operation. Pitching, which was a strong point in a 26-win spring campaign, remained impressive as Jack Butler, Jack Nelligan and Joey Preusser all delivered good performances.
Only Butler was rewarded as his five innings of work helped Rice defeat Sandburg 4-3 last Monday. Nelligan threw well in a 3-1 loss to St. Rita in 5 ½-innings on Tuesday and Preusser did likewise in Thursday’s 3-2 setback against Richards.
“We have the arms and have the depth,” McCarthy said. “I expected our pitching staff to be good because they mix up their pitches well.”
McCarthy was especially satisfied with Butler’s display versus the Eagles.
“We were very excited with the win,” McCarthy said. “They’re a great program. They always have good pitching and swing the bats well, but Butler kept us in the game. Whenever you’re in a game like that, it gives your bats more time to get it figured out.”
Actually, Rice struck fairly early against Sandburg as Mike Schalaskey (two hits), Ryan Kutt (RBI single) and Colin Shea (RBI single) all lent a hand. There were a few decent moments later on, but McCarthy admitted the Crusaders are in a “learning experience” when it comes to offense.
“We’re trying to develop these [younger] kids, but we have to have a lot of patience and allow them to adjust to the varsity,” he said. “It’s a big adjustment mentally. You can get away with things at the lower level, but little things can mean a lot on varsity. For us, it’s all about the details — getting guys on base and moving them around, taking extra bases, making hard turns, bunting, playing small ball.
“We don’t hide from anybody. We’re going to play the best teams around, so we’re going to see good arms. Guys have to buy into timely hitting and finding a way to score runs, and we need to put guys in situations where they can succeed.
“We’ve got to get back to teaching, allow them to fail, and show them the way to learn from their mistakes and get back up again. It’s going to come around.”
Summer vacation? Hardly.
The Spartans were kept busy by coach Bill Gerny through the first three weeks of the summer season as they took part in a dozen games. Oak Lawn had one contest wiped out by rain last week and Gerny thought that may have been a lucky break.
“The kids were starting to get a little fried,” he said. “I scheduled about twice as many games as I did last year.”
Why the increase? Gerny offered a simple explanation.
“I think our team needs to play more games to get where some other teams are,” he said. “A lot of coaches were saying, ‘Do you have a death wish?’ but I have the feeling the more our guys play [elite squads] the less awestruck they’ll be and the better we’ll get.
“We’re giving guys opportunities and I do see improvement. There are seven or eight guys who have been super dedicated and haven’t missed any games. I’m very encouraged with the way the summer’s going — every game gives me a little bit more optimism for next year.”
The Spartans’ lone win of last week came against Illiana Christian, which they defeated 3-2 on Wednesday by scoring once in the sixth. Oak Lawn fell 8-0 to Mt. Carmel, 7-3 to St. Rita and 11-1 to St. Laurence, the latter two setbacks coming on the same day as Gerny employed split squads.
“I was nervous because I didn’t want guys to be embarrassed or discouraged,” Gerny said. “We didn’t have any football players with us on Tuesday or Thursday, and there are four or five [probable] starters among them. You can’t [typically] rely on only eight or nine guys.”
That’s especially true when powerful programs represent the opposition.
“You look at those scores and you’d think we’re disappointed, but we’re not,” Gerny said. “The big difference between us and the top teams is one through nine they can get the clutch hit. We can’t keep up with them hitting-wise.”
Two guys who are doing their best to counter that argument are all-area second-teamer Brandon Quillin and Ryne Melnik, who carried respective averages of .480 and .421 into the current week. The latter number is a measurable upswing for Melnik, who struck out just three times in his first 23 at-bats.
“He’s on an absolute tear this summer,” Gerny said of Melnik. “He’s getting more plate discipline. You can’t put a price on game at-bats when there’s pressure on you.
“And teams are struggling to get [Quillin] out. He’s starting to look like a top-line varsity hitter.”
The duo’s combined input has become particularly important since the Spartans are without junior-to-be Justin Swatek. A varsity player as a sophomore, Swatek is sidelined after undergoing shoulder surgery in June.
There were also a few bright spots for Oak Lawn pitching-wise, despite the 1-3 week. Newcomers Justin McGrath and Patrick Slattery and veteran Matt Witkowski all lent a hand to the win over Illiana, Witkowski threw well for five innings versus St. Rita and junior-to-be knuckleballer Ryan Quinn allowed only one earned run over three stanzas against Mt. Carmel.
Gerny was impressed that Quinn “wasn’t really intimidated” and just as pleased that Witkowski, pegged as the Spartans’ No. 1 hurler in 2015, held his own against the powerful Mustangs, who are fresh off a runner-up finish in Class 4A.
“He pitched well and battled for five innings,” Gerny said. “One through 25 they’re going to be good. I think our team showed a lot of fight.”
The Chargers’ schedule is much lighter than Oak Lawn’s this summer, but they’ve played often enough to give some younger players an opportunity to shine. One of those guys is Gary Kopca, who blew up Shepard’s late-game strategy on Thursday.
The Astros were nursing a one-run lead when coach Frank DiFoggio chose to issue a bases-filling intentional walk to Brett Stratinsky in the bottom of the seventh. Joking that he had never asked his pitchers to do that even when current minor leaguer Justin Ringo played for Stagg, DiFoggio watched Kopca stroke a two-run single to hand the Chargers an 8-7 victory.
The rally, which got underway with two outs, also featured hits from Joe Van Nieuwenhuys (double) and Nick Worst.
“Gary Kopca is a kid who’s probably going to find himself in the lineup [next spring],” Stagg coach Matt O’Neill said. “He was a catcher for the sophomore team, but Mitchell Spencer’s there [for the varsity squad], so we’ll have [Kopca] as the DH or playing some other position.
“There’s only three guys coming back, so we have six to seven open spots. It truly is an evaluation time and we always seem to have a high level of competition. I think there’s some good seniors-to-be that were behind other guys and [the incoming juniors] did OK as sophomores.”
Nate Miranda had two hits and two RBI, Shane McMahon stroked an RBI single and Worst lofted a sacrifice fly to account for the Chargers’ earlier scoring. Kevin Burke, the last of four hurlers, threw seven strikes in eight pitches to log the win in relief.
DiFoggio wasn’t bothered by Thursday’s outcome, even though his team was unable to hold the lead.
“It was a fun game to be at,” he said. “It was well-played. There were some exciting plays and a couple controversial plays — one helped us, one hurt us.”
Adam Gregory and Travis Pruim both delivered two-run singles on the Astros’ behalf. Kevin Carmody, who was used as a pitcher for the first time, also piqued DiFoggio’s interest.
“We can work with Kevin to get him to be a [better] pitcher,” DiFoggio said. “He’s got a nice arm and he’s willing to learn.
Stagg’s other contest last week featured pitchers Ethan Glaza, Mike Bibbiano, Conor Bartle and Anthony Politano joining forces to stop Bremen on two hits and one walk while fanning eight batters between them in a 9-1 triumph on Tuesday. Although the Chargers pounded out nine hits themselves, O’Neill was most encouraged by the tag-team mound work.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of big hitters,” he said. “It’ll be like it’s been the past few years — [springtime success] is still going to come down to pitching and defense.”
Glaza (three RBI) and Joe Zaremba both had two hits for Stagg, while Stratinsky and Austin Greer each knocked in a pair of runs. Both of Greer’s RBI were recorded on a fifth-inning double.
The Stagg matchup represented the Astros’ biggest round of noisemaking last week. Twice before that Shepard was no-hit, and it also fell short of St. Charles East 7-4 in a game halted after five innings by bad weather.
Both the latter and an 8-1 loss to St. Ignatius were part of the Richards Tournament on June 21. The Wolfpack were one of the teams to hold the Astros hitless, though Shepard hurler Zack Haxel was also credible on the hill as he yielded only two earned runs over five frames and did not walk anyone.
De La Salle administered the other no-hitter en route to a 5-0 triumph last Tuesday. Again the Astros’ pitchers performed commendably, particularly Tommy Cimoch, who fanned two of the three batters he faced.
Rain also interrupted a Wednesday matchup with Oak Forest. The contest was stopped in the bottom of the third with the score knotted at 1-all. Mark Albrecht (double) and Eric Horbach (RBI single) were responsible for creating Shepard’s run and the latter also took a brief turn on the hill, as did Ricky Mundo.
The Astros’ lack of batting pop, coming on top of a somewhat mediocre offensive spring, would seemingly give DiFoggio reason to fret. However, neither that nor Shepard’s 2-7 record through three weeks of the summer schedule bothered him.
“I don’t have to be at full steam on June 26 to win the South Suburban Conference [Red] when we start on March 1,” Di Foggio said. “That’s eight months away, so it makes no sense.
“I don’t need to see [veterans such as] Bobby Peterka, Brett Smith or Eric Horbach. I’ve got to see how these young guys fit in and can help us, and I’m really looking [more] at the defensive part of it. We’ve made some mistakes, but for the most part we’re learning and doing a pretty good job.”
DiFoggio cited Billy Mitchell, Ben Meyer and Alex Galoski as some of the newcomers who’ve stepped up, especially in the St. Charles East game.
“We went out there with a lot of the younger guys [that day] and they competed,” DiFoggio said. “We were starting to hit the ball before the rains came.”
From here on, DiFoggio plans on using split squads to give his players a break. He said he sensed a fatigue among them prior to the De La Salle game.
“I want them to go to the beach, hang out in a pool all day, go meet girls at the mall or whatever kids do these days,” DiFoggio said. “The one bad thing about doing this is I run out of arms fast, but I want them to get away from baseball for a little bit.”
Pitching dominated for the Knights in four outings last week. Chicago Christian allowed as many as four runs only once, although that occasion brought with it a defeat against Lockport on Thursday.
The 4-1 loss came after the Knights had edged the Porters 2-1 earlier in the week. Christian also knocked off Lemont 5-2 and Evergreen Park 2-1. The Indians are the reigning Class 3A champs.
Lockport ruled over the competitive SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue in the spring and the Mustangs surpassed the 20-win mark while finishing second to Richards in the South Suburban Conference Red.
“I’m very, very pleased with how we played this [past] week,” Knights coach Eric Brauer said. “We’re well aware of what these teams were like in the spring. I expect us to be a solid team [in 2015] and I wanted to challenge us this summer.”
That meant entering Christian (9-2) in the Lockport Tournament for the first time. Brauer has used the Porters as a measuring stick for his team’s progress over the past seven summers — in 2008 Lockport hammered the Knights 14-0 in a playoff game, but the margin between them has consistently shrunk and Christian’s surge was culminated by last Monday’s win, which was made possible largely through the combined excellence of Trevor Wolterink, Christian Bolhuis and Jack De Vries on the mound.
De Vries, who threw three innings, pocketed the victory when Wolterink stroked a tiebreaking single in the seventh.
“It’s definitely been a progression and we feel like we’ve gotten a lot better,” Brauer said. “We got exactly what we wanted out of the tournament. We played really solid baseball against good teams — we made one error in 28 innings.”
Adam Schoenle went at it alone on Tuesday but fared well as he quieted Lemont on three hits. It was Bolhuis’ turn to toss a complete game the next day, and his three-hit, 10-strikeout effort enabled the Knights to slip past Evergreen.
“He’s our ace and we’re going to follow him,” Brauer said of Bolhuis, who was named this paper’s Player of the Year for 2014. “I think our kids feel it doesn’t matter who we play when Christian is pitching as long as we play defense behind him.
“I like how [all] our pitching has been. I felt we had enough pitching depth to compete in a tournament like this, and we did.”
Christian might have completed a tourney sweep had it produced a little timely hitting. The Knights stranded nine baserunners in Thursday’s encounter with Lockport, six of them over the final two innings.
Christian is off this week and returns to action on Monday.
`Pitchers TJ Spyrnal and Josh Chaffin teamed up to hold Brother Rice in check in the Bulldogs’ 3-2 triumph on Thursday.
“Brother Rice is pretty good, but I think we kept them off-balance more than anything else,” Richards assistant coach Jeff Kortz said.
Nick Mejia was almost equally tough in a Tuesday matchup with St. Rita as he surrendered just two unearned runs in four innings, but the Bulldogs’ sticks were cold as Chris Zeschke’s two hits represented the offensive highlight in a 6-0 defeat.
“I think the kids played hard,” Kortz said. “The coaching staff was real pleased with how Mejia pitched and how we competed.”
Another hard-luck loss was in store against Sandburg, which snapped a scoreless tie with two runs in the sixth and went on to post a 6-2 victory in nine innings. But Kortz said it’s “a process all summer.”
“We’ve got some seniors that are starting to step up and say, ‘This is my time,’” he said. “Guys are a little faster and a little stronger [on varsity], but it’s still baseball. You still have to go out and catch the ball, hit it and run the bases.”