Menu

Every which way they can

  • Written by Ken Karrson

 

Every which way they can

Vikings use different means to bag pair of wins

 

By Ken Karrson

Sports Editor

 

Give St. Laurence some credit for ingenuity.

When a team musters just five hits in one game and commits nine errors in the next, the odds against success would appear to be stacked pretty high. But not only did the Vikings overcome both those circumstances in their first week of action, their triumphs were gained by shockingly wide margins.

In last Thursday’s season-opener versus Lake View, for example, St. Laurence tallied at least three times in three separate innings to win via mercy rule, 11-0. Then on Saturday the Vikings traveled to Peoria for what was planned as a two-game stay.

Peoria Notre Dame, however, bowed out, perhaps after seeing St. Laurence survive a slew of mishaps in the field to defeat Peoria Richwoods 14-6. While Vikings coach Pete Lotus wasn’t especially enamored of making a long journey for just one contest or seeing all the defensive breakdowns, watching a high-octane offense do its thing brightened his mood.

“We didn’t play well defensively -- I’ve never been a part of nine errors and it was a little frustrating,” Lotus said. “[But] we swung the bats great.”

Fifteen hits testified to that, and St. Laurence augmented those with 13 stolen bases. Kevin Aderman swiped four bags, four other players had two thefts and the Vikings boasted five multiple-hit guys, a quintet led by Anthony Rios (4-for-5, two RBI) and Jimmy Burnette (3-for-3).

Also getting into the batting act were Mike Finger (two hits, three RBI), Tommy Farrell (double, triple, two RBI), Jack Cavanaugh (two hits), Nick Verta (bases-clearing triple) and Anthony Chimera (one hit, two RBI).

Undoubtedly St. Laurence’s assault caught at least some people by surprise. Don’t count Lotus among that group, however.

“We’re possibly overlooked because of the guys we lost,” said Lotus, whose 2014 graduates included 2013 Player of the Year Mike Kornacker (Purdue) and Brad Wood (Northern Illinois). “These are not as recognizable names and some new guys are going to have to step up, but don’t get me wrong: We’re going to be good. We have some talented kids.

“I think our guys have worked really hard and I don’t expect anything different than in other years, [which means] going out there and truly competing. I think the guys expect that too.”

The Vikings’ two lower-level clubs both posted more than 20 victories last spring and seriously challenged for Chicago Catholic League titles, so a winning mentality is already in place. St. Laurence did receive a tough blow, though, as senior John Riordan broke a bone in his hand in a non-game situation and will be lost for the remainder of the season.

“It’s disappointing for John and I feel awful for him,” Lotus said. “Even with the big guys we had last year, he had four or five wins and he had a great summer. He was kind of a leader for us.”

Frank Greco, who knocked in one of the Vikings’ runs with a sacrifice fly, surrendered 10 hits during a five-inning stint on the hill but was touched for only three earned runs. He struck out four while capturing his eighth consecutive varsity triumph without a loss dating back to last season.

Mike Munoz and Cavanaugh each threw an inning of relief, with the latter striking out the side in the seventh.

            St. Laurence 11

            Lake View 0

Five hits aren’t normally enough to get an offense labeled potent, but when they’re mixed with eight hit batsmen and seven walks it spells trouble for the opposition. Such was the scenario on Thursday as the Wildcats got rolled.

“It wasn’t like their pitchers were terrible -- they just didn’t throw many strikes,” Lotus said. “It’s obviously tough to tell much when you’re getting walked and hit by pitches that many times, but I thought we did a pretty good job [of capitalizing on chances].”

Rios’ RBI triple was St. Laurence’s lone extra-base hit and one of two on the day for him. Greco (hit by pitch, sacrifice fly), Riordan (single), Finger (hit by pitch), Burnette (walk) and Dan Cummings (walk) were the Vikings’ other RBI men. Hitting safely in addition to Rios and Riordan were Cavanaugh and Anthony Robles.

Dan Heiden, the first of three St. Laurence hurlers, was credited with the win after going three stanzas on a yield of one hit while fanning four. Lake View notched just two other hits in the remaining frames off relievers Zach Erdman and Munoz.

Three games were on this week’s schedule, the last of those being Saturday’s matchup with Wheaton-St. Francis. Prior to that the Vikings were due to square off with Lincoln-Way Central and Harlan.

 

Chargers tell them to 'ScRam'

  • Written by Ken Karrson

 

 

 

STAGGBASE.PHOTO.4-2

 

Chargers tell them to ‘ScRam’

Early uprisings enable Stagg to overpower Reavis

 

By Ken Karrson

Sports Editor

 

Three games into the 2015 season Matt O’Neill looks like quite the sage.

When asked about his team’s assets prior to the start of the campaign, Stagg’s coach projected that offense should be among its stronger ones. Seeing as how the Chargers’ attack had been somewhat sketchy in recent years, O’Neill’s assessment might have seemed like little more than wishful thinking to many.

But as Stagg demonstrated last Thursday, he was right on the money. The Chargers won't be mistaken for the 1927 Yankees, but they definitely possess greater punch than they have of late.

Reavis learned that the hard way. Normally a competitive squad against most opponents, the Rams were out of their element versus Stagg.

Part of Reavis’ undoing came at its own hands -- it was guilty of an uncharacteristically high seven errors -- but the Chargers also did their share of the lifting as they knocked out 17 hits. Seven of those were doubles and Stagg runners crossed the plate 15 times over the first two innings.

Those early explosions laid the groundwork for a stunningly lopsided 19-2 victory over the Rams that improved the Chargers’ ledger to 2-1. They had lost to Nazareth Academy and edged Romeoville the week before.

“I think we have the ability to do this hopefully pretty consistently,” O’Neill said of his squad’s onslaught. “Everybody that got a chance to bat did pretty well in that game.

“We did what we should do. [Reavis is] really young and they’re a little down, and we took advantage of their mistakes.”

Did they ever. Stagg’s five-run first inning was a hodgepodge as Rams mishaps were largely responsible for the rally, but a 10-run second featured several clutch hits for the Chargers, most notably two-RBI doubles from Calogelo Martinez and Brett Stratinsky.

Mike Bibbiano also doubled as part of the eruption while Dennis Egan (two RBI), Gary Kopca and Mitchell Spencer all had run-producing singles. Spencer earned a second RBI by getting plunked with a pitch with the bags jammed.

Bibbiano, Kopca, Spencer, Egan, Nate Miranda and Josh Nowak all went 2-for-2 and either drove in a run, scored or did both. Nowak, who has already been stationed at four different positions, has filled a hole for Stagg in the leadoff spot.

“I think there are some guys that, as juniors, we saw some potential in them,” O’Neill said. “It took them a little while to figure some things out, but they put in a tremendous amount of time in the weight room and a lot of these guys are football players who have the right attitude about competing. [As far as] the competition for jobs, we haven’t had this much in a few years.”

There’s something else benefitting this year’s upperclassmen.

“Our team last year set the tone as far as leadership and what it takes to be a good team,” O’Neill said. “Our seniors learned [success] takes more than baseball ability.”

Nick Gerzon, Stagg’s starter, was the winning pitcher. He and three relievers combined to strike out six, walk only two and limit the Rams to three hits. But despite that credible overall performance, O’Neill still tabs pitching as something of an unknown and says he and his staff have still not identified a clear-cut No. 1 guy.

Several pitchers were going to be needed this week as five games were on the schedule. Those affairs included a home date with Marist today and a visit to Lemont on Saturday. The Indians were pummeled 10-0 by Sandburg in a meeting last week.

 

Living in a perfect world

  • Written by Ken Karrson

 

 

 

CCBASE.PHOTO1.4-2

 

Living in a perfect world

Knights set school record for best start

 

By Ken Karrson

Sports Editor

 

While other teams scramble to find baseball games, Chicago Christian keeps on playing -- and winning.

The Knights raised their season total of completed contests to eight, the same number that is counted on the left side of the ledger. Victories six, seven and eight came last week, one of them at the expense of a first-time foe.

Never before Thursday had Christian and Lincoln-Way East met on the diamond, but that changed now that Mark Vander Kooi is in charge of athletics at the Frankfort school. A former football coach and AD at Christian, Vander Kooi contacted Knights coach Eric Brauer to ask if he was interested in a game.

Brauer, also Christian’s current AD, didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“If somebody calls and wants to play, we’ll usually try to find a way to play it if we can,” he said. “We felt pretty good about it.”

Brauer and his players felt even better by day’s end as the Knights made the most of their opportunity against a member of the highly regarded SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue. Despite owning a roster that was about double the size of Christian’s, the Griffins wound up short on the scoreboard.

They did draw first blood but went dry after the opening frame. There were a couple threats issued, but Knights pitchers were equal to the task. And a three-run third inning snapped a 2-all tie and sent Christian on its way to a 5-2 win.

“They were probably better than us, but we played a real clean game with no errors,” Brauer said. “It boils down to toughness a little bit.

“It was a quality win, no doubt about it, but more than anything it continues to instill in our guys the attitude we’ve been preaching for seven years: show up every day expecting to win.”

The Knights didn’t let that success make them overconfident, however. On Saturday they were down in Jacksonville, Ill., for a jamboree and bagged two more triumphs: 11-6 over Rockford Christian and 14-0 over Reed-Custer. The second of those gave Christian eight straight wins to open the 2015 campaign, its best start ever to a season.

The Knights could match the longest winning streak in program history with another clean sweep this week. Christian achieved its record of 12 in a row in 2005 under Brauer’s predecessor Sam Hamstra, whom Brauer credits with initially creating the proper environment for success.

Hamstra certainly would have been proud of the Knights’ efforts on Thursday, which included input from many. Four pitchers took the mound, a move made by Brauer to ensure he’d have enough rested arms available for Saturday and also because it “was going to be cold so I couldn’t extend anybody too long.”

2014 Player of the Year Christian Bolhuis logged the victory by throwing the final 3 2/3 innings. The only trouble he encountered occurred in the seventh, but the Griffins left two runners stranded when Bolhuis rang up a strikeout.

The Knights generated just seven hits, but three of them accounted for four RBI. Zach Frieling’s two-run double and Dan Vos’ single were the key elements of the aforementioned third-inning surge while Tyler Edgar chased home a teammate with his second-inning hit. Ron Clark’s grounder also knocked in an early run.

When asked if this ranked as a marquee win for Christian, Brauer preferred to simply view it as something that could possibly pay dividends down the road.

“Playing some good teams and good games hopefully prepares us for conference [contests, which began this week],” Brauer said. “And hopefully it sets us up for a nice playoff run [in Class 2A].”

            Chicago Christian     11

            Rockford Christian   6

            Chicago Christian     14

            Reed-Custer   0

Not until the fifth inning of Saturday’s first game did the Knights hold an advantage. They garnered it with a four-run outburst fueled by Trevor Wolterink’s two-run single and Tyler Edgar’s RBI double. Vos’ groundout also supplied a tally.

Edgar (double) and Wolterink had RBI hits as well during Christian’s three-run third. Other RBI producers were DeVries (double), Bolhuis (single) and Adam Schoenle (walk).

The Knights totaled eight hits and coaxed eight bases-on-balls and, true to frequent form, made the most of their chances.

“We preach quality at-bats to the kids -- we do bunt and put balls on the ground to move runners,” said Brauer, whose team has executed 13 sacrifice plays so far and drawn 41 free passes. “A lot of talented kids don’t want to do that, but our kids don’t come at it from that angle.

“It takes a little bit of checking your pride at the door, [but] it’s all about the team. Our kids are good, unselfish ballplayers [who] really buy into the team aspect and what we do.”

Wolterink, Bobby Schaaf and Schoenle shared the pitching duties, with the latter picking up his second victory of the young season.

                        ***

The Comets have traditionally fielded a solid baseball squad, so Brauer was caught off guard by their inability to issue much of a challenge to the Knights in Saturday’s second encounter.

“We were very surprised at the score and the outcome,” he said. “It really wasn’t a very good game.”

Since teams at the jamboree don’t play a set number of games -- “Some play two, some play three, some play four,” Brauer said -- the Christian boss was unsure as to whether Reed-Custer was facing a pitching shortage or saving arms for another contest. But there was no question as to the effect the Knights’ bats had on the Comets, particularly in the fourth stanza.

That’s when Christian broke the contest wide open with a 10-spot. Josh Hill’s bases-clearing double capped the huge uprising, but Vos (two-run single), Bolhuis (triple), Frieling, Schoenle and Pat McCarthy also delivered RBI hits.

Vos, DeVries and Jacob Bulthuis knocked in earlier runs with singles. The Knights scored four times over the first three frames. Their 14 runs meant only three baserunners were stranded as Christian finished with 14 hits and three bases-on-balls.

“That’s not a bad stat to keep up,” said Brauer, whose team used a similarly high runners-to-runs ratio as a main ingredient in a 30-win season a couple years ago.

“I don’t care how our guys score -- when we get them on, we want to get them in. In a playoff game, if you only have five guys get on base but they all score, you have a good chance to win.”

Brauer again used a three-man group on the mound and starter Vos improved to 3-0 after pitching the first three innings for the Knights, who were slated to play Walther Christian this past Monday and Tuesday in their first two games as a member of the Metro Suburban Conference.

 

Lights, camera. 'AXIOM'

  • Written by Claudia Parker

 

Mother Nature has been wrestling with spring sports.

On March 16, the Monday that kicked off the outdoor spring sports season, temperatures were in the 70s. But Monday it was cold and inches of snow fell.

What will it be like next Monday? Marist High School 2007 alum Ryan Blake hopes it will be a day that people will want to pack the Beverly Arts Center in Chicago at 7 p.m. to watch his documentary on a winter sport, “AXIOM.”

In 2013, the Marist High School wrestling team started its season in a referee’s position, ranked on top. The RedHawks had an expectation set for them to win a state championship.

 However, physical injuries coupled with emotional fatigue had them stalling, and ready to flee the mat. The film follows five seniors; Matt Sears, Josh Pruitt, Ethan Benoit, Josh Hickey, and Tom Howell through their 2013-14 season as they pursue a state trophy.  

Head coach Brendan Heffernan, who graduated from the school in 1999, took the losses in stride, while encouraging the team to keep their heads up and prepare for the takedown.

Blake, the 26 year-old face behind the camera, is a University of Minnesota graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, currently working as a video editor at the National Collegiate Scouting Association (NCSA).

“My education, love for the sport and work experience prepared me for shooting this documentary but it’s no doubt, the biggest undertaking I’ve ever had professionally.” Blake said.

Blake has played, coached and continues to study wrestling through his profession, making sports profile videos.

“I’ve always had an interest in wrestling. I started in sixth grade and continued through college.” Blake said. “After I graduated from college and moved back to Chicago, Marist’s head coach offered me a coaching position. It was a natural fit.”

Blake said to keep up morale during the season he created several 2-3 minute video clips and posted them to social media. “It was a nice way to showcase our talent. Then, a student, off the cuff said, ’Just do a documentary.’ Great idea in theory, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounded.” Blake said.        

Shouldn’t it have been a breeze for someone with Blake’s knowledge of the sport and technical training in film?

“It takes equipment, manpower and time. Resources I didn’t have.” Blake said. “The goal was to raise $7,000. A lot of friends of Marist wrestling helped me raise $2,000 through an IndieGoGo account, it’s like a GoFundMe but geared for film. ”

What went by the wayside from the $5000 deficit? Well, Blake had to do a lot of combination moves.

The reflection brought tension to Blake’s voice.

“I had to scale back on equipment, fewer cameras, lights, lav-microphones and camera men,” he said. “Instead of being able to rent the equipment for the entire season, I had to shoot a few days at a time, return the equipment and re-rent it to reserve funds.”

Blake said if he could do things over he’d pitch the idea to a few investors first.  

“I had six months of footage, but it took me a year and a half to create my 90 minute film,” Blake said. “I wanted to show a bigger perspective so I made a full feature length movie.”        

Blake allowed Marist Principal, Larry Tucker, a private screening. Blake said he wanted Tucker’s blessing before its public debut.

“I was really impressed after seeing the documentary. Ryan's talent filming and editing is quite apparent,” Tucker said. “Ryan did a great job capturing the wrestling team’s journey that season. It was great seeing behind-the-scenes. I got to know the athletes even better.” 

“This documentary is about more than just wrestling,” Blake said. “It takes you through a fragile year of them juggling different expectations. You get to see how it shaped their identity.”

Blake said he hoped to find an online platform for the film and enter it in film festivals after the debut at the Beverly Arts Center.  

This documentary speaks to the talent and dedication of our wrestling program, but on a larger scale its message is for any team, group or even individual,” Tucker said. “It highlights the importance of making a commitment and seeing it through despite challenges or disappointments. The coaches depicted aren't just helping these student-athletes learn wrestling skills, they are instilling life skills.”

Blake will introduce the film and hold a question and answer session following. Tickets are $7, and are being sold through Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W 111th St, Chicago. To view a trailer and easily link to ticket sales, visit www.marist.net/wrestling-documentary.

“It's exciting to see a piece of Marist history captured so well,” Tucker said. “And for Ryan, like so many other Marist alumni, to continue to have a love for the school means a lot for our community.” 

 

2015 Baseball Preview

  • Written by Ken Karrson

 

BASEPREV.PHOTO1.3-26

 

2015 Baseball Preview

Batter up

Local teams ready to make noise this spring

 

BROTHER RICE

2014 Record: 26-11.

Head coach: John McCarthy (69-41).

Assistant coaches: Sean McBride, Danny O’Brien, Tim O’Connell.

* Who’s gone: Kevin Biondic, INF/P; Kevin Sullivan, INF; Ian McGinnis, P; Mike Enriquez, P; Brian Musielak, P/OF; Kyle Hilliard, C; Erich Lieser, OF.

* Who’s back: Andrew Dyke, C/OF, Jr. (.383, .486 on-base pct., 44 hits, 34 RBI, 30 runs, 21 BBs, 11 extra-base hits, seven steals); Michael Massey, SS, Jr. (.333, .471 on-base pct., 36 hits, 28 runs, 17 RBI, 23 BBs, 18 steals, five doubles); Mike Schalasky, P/C/OF, Sr. (.295, .415 on-base pct., 13 hits, four extra-base hits, 11 RBI, six runs); Ryan Kutt, P, So. (5-2, 1.62 ERA, 27 Ks in 39 IP; .310, .473 on-base pct., six runs, five RBI).

* Who’s new: Jack Nelligan, P, Jr.; Ryan King, 2B, So.; Jake Ridgway, OF/C, So.; Jack Guzek, P, So.

* Outlook: Steady progress has been made under John McCarthy, so much so that the Crusaders could very well position themselves as a force within the Chicago Catholic League Blue this spring. Brother Rice more than held its own a year ago, winning 11 of 16 league contests and staying in the title chase most of the season. McCarthy’s clubs averaged 23 victories the past three years, and there’s no reason to believe the 26 wins notched in 2014 can’t be equaled -- or eclipsed.

            The Crusaders definitely lost some talent to graduation, including three key members of the pitching staff: all-area first-teamer Mike Enriquez (Lewis University), Brian Musielak (Concordia, Ill.) and Ian McGinnis (Illinois Wesleyan). Other notable departures include infielder Kevin Biondic (Maryland), infielder Kevin Sullivan (Middle Tennessee State), outfielder Erich Lieser (Illinois Wesleyan) and catcher Kyle Hilliard (Concordia, Wis.). With so many old faces having moved on, shouldn’t Rice be undergoing a bit of rebuilding?

            Well, it would be if guys such as Andrew Dyke, Michael Massey, Ryan Kutt and Mike Schalasky weren’t around to serve as cornerstones of the 2015 squad. Dyke is also a good football player, but he bypassed that sport last fall to concentrate on preparation for baseball and McCarthy expects that extra work to pay dividends. Dyke, who is coming off an All-Catholic League and all-area sophomore season, will shift from left to center field and provide Rice with a potent mix of speed and power. Massey, another all-area selection who has already committed to the University of Illinois, is capable of hitting to all fields with authority and probably the team’s premier base-stealing threat. A top-of-the-order guy in the lineup, Massey is blessed with a strong arm that will be put to good use at shortstop.

            Two other starters who return are Kutt and Schalasky, who’ll anchor a revamped pitching staff. Kutt, who has also given a verbal commitment to Illinois, made an immediate impact as a varsity freshman by winning five of seven decisions while posting an earned-run average below 1.70. Both hurlers throw fastballs that travel nearly 90 miles per hour and possess above-average breaking balls, and each will be in the field on non-pitching days, Kutt at first base and Schalasky at one of several different positions. Sophomore Jack Guzek, who has drawn some Division I interest already, could be a star-in-the-making and McCarthy is also high on the potential of junior Jack Nelligan.

            Two newcomers who could quickly find spots in the everyday lineup are sophomores Ryan King and Jake Ridgway. King, a second-base candidate, is another athlete of whom colleges are already aware. Ridgway could set up behind the plate or play in the outfield. Other positions will be settled on during the early part of the season.

            As became the norm under former coach Tim Lyons, the Crusaders will tackle a challenging schedule. In addition to early season encounters with local powerhouses Lincoln-Way North and Joliet Catholic Academy, Rice will make a trip to Kentucky and face top-rated programs from that state. In short, whatever the Crusaders accomplish will be hard-earned.

* Coach’s comments: “Our team will need to bring energy to the ballpark every day to compete. Competition will drive the 2015 team and hopefully we will reach our potential by the end of the year. Our goals are to play hard every day and contend for a conference title along with a state championship.

“Our team is very athletic and strong defensively -- defensively this will be one of our best teams. [There] will be a nice mix of speed and power offensively and our staff this year will blend some youth with experience. The key to our success will be throwing strikes and picking up the baseball.” -- McCarthy

CHICAGO CHRISTIAN

2014 Record: 25-12.

Head coach: Eric Brauer (159-65 at CC; 226-86 overall).

Assistant coaches: Alex Bolyanatz, Colin Reynolds, Jimmy Hoofnagle.

* Who’s gone: Sean O’Meara, OF/SS; Josh Novak, P/INF; Max Kerfin, C.

* Who’s back: Christian Bolhius, P/OF, Sr. (8-3, 1.20 ERA, 100 Ks in 64 1/3 IP, 19 BBS, .146 opponents’ avg; .326, .415 on-base pct, 24 runs, 23 RBI, nine doubles); Trevor Wolterink, 3B, Jr. (.355, 31 runs); Jack De Vries, 1B/OF, Sr. (.303, 29 RBI); Pat McCarthy, 2B, Sr. (.276, .405 on-base pct.); Ron Clark, OF, Sr. (.260); Zach Frieling, SS, So. (.278, 30 RBI, 10 doubles); Dan Vos, P, So. (7-3, 1.76 ERA, 61 Ks in 59 2/3 IP); Adam Schoenle, P. Jr. (4-1, 34 1/3 IP).

* Who’s new: Brian Finger, C, Jr.; Josh Hill, OF, So.; Jacob Bulthuis, OF, So.

* Outlook: It has become a baseball assembly line in Palos Heights as Eric Brauer consistently turns out quality clubs. 2014 was no different as the Knights racked up 25 victories and successfully defended the Suburban Christian Conference title it captured in 2013 -- securing back-to-back league championships was a first for Chicago Christian, which has won 159 games during Brauer’s six-year stint.

            And maybe the best news is that many of the people responsible for the Knights’ latest show of excellence are back to give it another go. Most welcome is 2014 Player of the Year Christian Bolhuis, who was voted onto the Illinois Baseball Coaches Association Class 2A All-State team after a junior season that featured eight wins in 11 decisions, a 1.20 earned-run average and 100 strikeouts in less than 65 innings. Bolhuis, who also quarterbacked the Knights football team for three years, is on pace to pass Trent Overzet and become the school’s career-victories leader. Having Bolhuis back in the fold would be enough to make Chicago Christian formidable in its new Metro Suburban Conference home, but the talent extends well beyond him.

            Joining Bolhuis as an integral part of the mound staff is sophomore Dan Vos, who won seven games, registered an earned-run average below 1.80 and averaged better than a strikeout per inning over 59 2/3 frames. Junior Adam Schoenle provided four pitching victories and should be a solid No. 3 man in the rotation. And every one of those hurlers will be supported by an infield that is loaded with proven commodities.

            Foremost among the group is junior third baseman Trevor Wolterink, a two-sport standout who is coming off an all-area basketball campaign. He achieved similar status on the diamond last spring after leading the Knights with a .355 average and scoring 31 runs. Wolterink will also take regular turns on the hill. First baseman/right fielder Jack DeVries batted .303 with 29 RBI as a junior but should be even better in his final prep season and Zach Frieling’s future is certainly bright after the shortstop hit a respectable .278 with team-leading figures of 30 RBI and 10 doubles as a varsity freshman. Pat McCarthy and Ron Clark offer experienced presences at second base and left field, respectively.

            With a sizable veteran contingent on hand, the opportunities to shine may be somewhat limited for varsity rookies, at least at the outset. However, as Frieling showed last year and others did before him breakthroughs are possible, especially since Brauer has always been flexible about making adjustments on the fly and demonstrated a willingness to give younger players a shot if he thinks they can fill a specific need. New names mentioned by the coach in a preseason analysis were junior catcher Brian Finger -- who could step in immediately for the graduated Max Kerfin -- and sophomore outfielders Josh Hill and Jacob Bulthuis.

            Christian captured its fifth regional crown in six years last season and then followed up with one its best summer campaigns ever. About the only thing missing from the Knights’ resume since Brauer’s arrival is a sectional championship, but with their repeated appearances in Class 2A sectionals it would seem only a matter of time before they finally grab one and perhaps challenge for an even bigger slice of postseason pie. It wouldn’t be a complete shock if 2015 becomes that moment.

* Coach’s comments: “We made a nice run to the Sweet 16 in the summer-league playoffs [by] knocking off Reavis, Stagg and Mt Carmel.  We get back six starters from a 25-win team and we return [over] 71 percent of our innings pitched from last year’s staff, [so] we should be a strong team defensively and on the mound. We have four really strong arms at the top of our rotation and are positioned to be competitive in every game because of that pitching depth. 

“We are hoping to make a deeper run in the playoffs this spring. I like my team and I love my kids.  We are excited for this upcoming season.” -- Brauer

EVERGREEN PARK

2014 Record: 22-11.

Head coach: Mark Smyth (218-218).

Assistant coaches: Jason Dunneback, John Altman, John Tiffy.

* Who’s gone: Corey Miller, 1B; Frank Meisl, P; Tim Walsh, 3B; Aaron Green Van Zee, P; KeyShawn Carpenter, OF.

* Who’s back: Mark Martin, SS/P, Sr. (.472, .513 on-base pct., 51 hits, 35 runs, 28 RBI, 13 doubles); Sean Miller, 2B, Sr. (.374, 18 RBI, 18 runs); Brian Pall, P/OF, Sr. (6-2, 2.10 ERA, 56 Ks in 52 IP); Joe Moran, P, Sr. (7-1, 2.56 ERA, 40 Ks in 39 IP); Mike Rizzo, C, Sr.; Ronnie O’Toole, CF, Sr.; Brendan Walsh, INF, Sr.; JR Wazio, P/1B, Sr.; Joe Piet, C/DH, Sr.; Brennan Quick, 3B, Sr.

* Who’s new: Harold McClarin, INF, Jr.; Matt Lyons, DH. Jr.; Shane Miller, OF, Jr.; Dan Smith, OF, So.; Pat Doran, P, Fr.

* Outlook: Seeing as how much of society embraces the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately concept, the Mustangs and coach Mark Smyth shouldn’t get overlooked for their recent feats. Smyth’s career ledger stood at an even .500 prior to the start of the 2015 campaign, but like fine wine he has benefited from the passage of time. Consider that Evergreen Park went 22-11 in 2014 and has won 36 of its last 53 contests dating back to the early portion of the 2013 season; included among the triumphs are four in the postseason and along the way the Mustangs claimed their first regional title in more than a half-century and first sectional victory ever.

            And what's encouraging for Smyth and Evergreen fans is that the Mustangs could -- and probably should -- continue traveling the high road this spring. Sure, they’ll miss 2014 South Suburban Conference Red Player of the Year Corey Miller and mound stalwart Frank Meisl (Benedictine University), but the cupboard definitely isn’t bare. How could it be with fourth-year starter Mark Martin back in the fold.

            Martin, a first-team all-area selection as a junior and second-teamer the two years before that, has already committed to staying local for college as he plans to attend neighboring St. Xavier University in the fall. Before that happens, though, he wants to produce one last big season at Evergreen. Martin, who’ll be regarded as one of the Mustangs’ finest baseball players ever by the time he’s finished, gave himself a difficult act to follow by posting some outstanding offensive numbers last spring: .472 average, .513 on-base percentage, 51 hits, 35 runs, 28 RBI and 13 doubles. And in case anyone thinks of Martin solely as a one-dimensional performer, he demonstrated his defensive chops at shortstop by turning 16 doubles plays in 2014.

            All-conference second baseman Sean Miller (.374) will again team with Martin to form an excellent DP combo, Illinois State Scholar Mike Rizzo has set up behind the plate since his freshman year and Ronnie O’Toole is a game-tested center fielder. Other seniors who should fill roles are JR Wazio, Brendan Walsh, Brennan Quick and Joe Piet, the latter of whom was an all-area offensive lineman last fall. Newcomers making a push for playing time include Brother Rice transfer Harold McClarin, fellow juniors Matt Lyons and Shane Miller and sophomore Dan Smith, who played varsity basketball during the winter. McClarin sat out last season, but Smyth sees him making his presence felt now.

Even without Meisl around to anchor the staff, pitching should remain an asset for the Mustangs. Joe Moran and Brian Pall combined to go 13-3 with 96 strikeouts in 91 innings a year ago and each pitcher’s earned-run average was well below 3.0. Wazio will also be used on the hill and 6-foot-2 freshman Pat Doran is expected to be in the mix as well.

Richards seized control of the SSC Red race fairly early last year, but Evergreen managed to hang around most of the way. With the Bulldogs having lost a large number of 2014 contributors, a new divisional kingpin could emerge. If the last year-and-a-half is any indication, there’s reason to believe the Mustangs have a legitimate shot at grabbing the top spot.

* Coach’s comments: “Richards is always the [SSC Red] kingpin, but expect Shepard and Eisenhower to be much improved [because] both return many players. Reavis and Oak Lawn are always well-coached and formidable and Argo is always a tough opponent as well. The top half is always competitive, but we need to get over the hump.

            “We hope to compete [the entire season] and win our second regional in three years. We lost a tough one to Morgan Park last year [in the regional final] and the kids are hungry. Depth and defense is definitely our strength, [but] solidifying our pitching staff, filling our outfield holes and getting consistent hitting 1 through 9 [are key].” -- Smyth

MARIST

2014: Record: 21-15

Head coach: Kevin Sefcik (1st year)

Assistant coaches: Don Pirkle, Rich Robin.

* Who’s gone: Matt McKenzie, P; Robert Hovey, P; Blake Bieniek, P/INF; Kyle Barrett, INF/OF; Barrett Callaghan, INF.

* Who’s back: Rich Kairis, P/OF, Sr. (six wins, 1.59 ERA, .218 opponents’ avg., 38 Ks; .366, 34 hits, 17 runs, 16 RBI, 18-of-20 steals); Pat Meehan, SS/P, Sr.; John Carmody, 1B, Jr.; Eric Hansen, C, Sr.

* Who’s new: Jack Snyder, INF/P, Jr.; Brandon Hanik, INF/P, Jr.; Zach Sefcik, OF, Jr.

* Outlook: When a baseball team requires an infusion of offense, there are a few ways to try to make that happen. The RedHawks opted for a somewhat unique method of repair: They hired a former major leaguer to lead the way.

            Kevin Sefcik, an Andrew graduate who reached baseball’s highest level in 1995 and stuck around past the turn of the century, has taken over for Tom Fabrizio, who, in an ironic twist, is now at Andrew. Fabrizio did superb work in his final year at Marist as he guided his team to 21 wins and a near-upset of powerful Lincoln-Way North in a regional final. The RedHawks managed that while amassing a sub-standard .210 team batting average; helping to offset it was a pitching staff that posted a miserly 2.30 earned-run average.

            Obviously Sefcik, who was an assistant to John McCarthy at Brother Rice the past few seasons, would have no complaints about a continuation of that rock-solid mound work. But his goal is to complement it with a far more productive attack, and a guy who batted .275 over 425 games in the big leagues should have some teaching tricks up his sleeve. Marist’s season-opener certainly seemed to indicate such a thing -- the offense-starved RedHawks gave way to ones who piled up 11 runs in a nine-run victory over Lincoln-Way Central, an always-competitive SouthWest Suburban Conference program.

            Was it a fluke or sign of what’s to come for Marist? That remains to be seen, of course, but Sefcik’s coaching job is made a little easier by the return of third-year varsity player Rich Kairis, who collected all-area first-team honors as a junior after excelling both on the hill and at the plate. As a pitcher Kairis won six times, had a 2 ½-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, registered a 1.59 ERA and limited opponents to a .218 cumulative average. He also paced the RedHawks’ offense with a .366 average and 34 hits while successfully swiping 18-of-20 bases.

Experienced sidekicks for Kairis include catcher Eric Hansen, shortstop Pat Meehan and junior first baseman John Carmody. Hansen, who has committed to Indiana University, homered against Lincoln-Way Central and finished with a couple of hits. Carmody is a potential bopper from the left side while Meehan is a slick glove man who can also pitch. Among the newcomers expected to lend a hand are juniors Jack Snyder, Brandon Hanik and Zach Sefcik, the coach’s son. Snyder supplies a strong arm, Hanik possesses sharp defensive skills and the younger Sefcik, appropriately enough, should provide an offensive boost.

Marist’s East Suburban Catholic Conference residence is always filled with landmines, but the RedHawks captured 10 of 16 games in 2014 despite their popgun attack. Assuming the pitching remains reasonably stout, if the RedHawks’ bats can become consistently active they should be able to make a fair amount of noise within the league. That’s what Sefcik is counting on in his debut campaign.

* Coach’s comments: “The conference is loaded with Joliet Catholic, Benet, Carmel Catholic, Marian [and] Nazareth among others, [but] we play good competition all year and we need to defeat some tough opponents to prove that we can play with the top teams come playoff time. We hope to compete well in the conference and get ready to make a run in the state tourney.

            “I feel like the sectional is wide open this year, so you never know. We need to get hot at the right time.” -- Sefcik

OAK LAWN

2014 Record: 13-23-1.

Head coach: Bill Gerny (29-37-1).

Assistant coaches: Nick Chigas, Gary Gudino, Tim Lyons.

* Who’s gone: Matt Dunne, P/2B; Mitch Swatek, P/OF; Jake Slusinski, OF; Ray Walker, 1B.

* Who’s back: Boo Quillin, SS, Sr. (.367, 16 RBI, 11 steals); Joe Dodaro, 3B, Sr. (.294); Justin Swatek, 1B/P, Jr. (.317, 15 RBI); Ryne Melnik, OF, Sr. (.322, 14 RBI), Matt Witkowski, P/OF, Sr.; Yunis Halim, P, Sr. (2.63 ERA), Bobby Beard, OF, Sr. (.317); Chad Cwik, P, So. (two wins, 3.67 ERA); Ivan Georgelos, INF/P, Sr.

* Who’s new: John Roberts, C, Jr. (.356 with sophomore team); Patrick Slattery, OF, Jr.; Liam Blake, 3B, Jr.; Jimmy Swiatek, OF, Jr. (.318 with sophomore team); Billy Dunne, P/2B, Jr.; Ryan Quinn, P, Jr.; Rodrigo Zavala, P, Jr.

* Outlook: From the penthouse to the … well, it wasn’t quite a Roman Empiresque fall for the Spartans last year, but they did wind up six games behind South Suburban Conference Red winner Richards in 2014 after beating out the Bulldogs -- and everyone else -- for the divisional crown in Bill Gerny’s first season as head coach.

So what happened? The biggest difference between 2014 and the year before was that Oak Lawn’s sticks struck few heavy blows last spring. That doesn’t reference only power displays but overall clutch batting -- simply put there wasn’t enough of it to constantly keep opponents on their heels. Things look more promising this season, mainly because the Spartans have a veteran nucleus around which to build -- seven starters are back -- and former Brother Rice skipper Tim Lyons returns as hitting coach after serving in that capacity for previous Oak Lawn boss Brian Clifton.

Third-year varsity player and 2014 team MVP Boo Quillin heads up the list of returnees. The All-SSC Red pick batted .367 and showed good speed with 11 steals -- both numbers ought to rise in his senior season. Third baseman Joe Dodaro will line up next to Quillin to give the Spartans a very good left side of the infield. Dodaro is back after hitting .294 and topping Oak Lawn in RBI.

Outfielders Bobby Beard and Ryne Melnik both produced averages over .300 and, like Quillin and Dodaro, should perform even better now because of their past varsity experience. Junior Justin Swatek batted a blistering .619 for the Spartans’ sophomore club before being elevated to varsity, then proceeded to hit .317 with three game-winning RBI and 15 in all. Positional newcomers who have a chance to make an impact include catcher John Roberts, St. Laurence transfer Patrick Slattery and juniors Liam Blake and Jimmy Swiatek.

Matt Witkowski, another third-year player, takes over for Matt Dunne (Roosevelt University) as the No. 1 man on the mound. Sophomore Chad Cwik did admirable work as a varsity freshman and could eventually develop into one of the better hurlers in Spartans annals. Gerny is also counting on seniors Yunis Halim and Ivan Georgelos to bolster the pitching corps while Billy Dunne, Ryan Quinn and Rodrigo Zavala are juniors who may contribute.

Despite its overall struggles a year ago Oak Lawn stayed above .500 in conference play, meaning that returning to prominence within the SSC Red is certainly an attainable goal if a few things pan out. Gerny wasn’t discouraged by what unfolded in 2014 -- if he was, he wouldn’t have beefed up the Spartans’ nonconference schedule to include heavyweights like Mt. Carmel and Morgan Park among others. Also on the slate are two contests for charity, with Brother Rice and Argo providing the opposition. Best of all Oak Lawn will be able to play home games on its own field at the school after being forced to move to alternative sites last spring due to construction delays.

* Coach’s comments: “The Spartans will officially open their new field -- new dugouts, backstop, drainage, [an] outfield fence and seating were added for the 2015 season -- [and] I am very excited for our players to compete this year. Almost every player on the roster has extended varsity experience; coupled with a heavy summer schedule [in 2014] the Spartans are primed to rise.” -- Gerny

RICHARDS

2014 Record: 25-9.

Head coach: Brian Wujcik (448-319-4).

Assistant coaches: Jeff Kortz, Kevin Lee.

* Who’s gone: Charlie Zeschke, C; Shawn Chiaramonte, C/OF; Nate Natividad, P/OF; Eric Mallo, P/OF; AJ Sanchez, P/INF; Ryan Thompson, P; Andrew Schramm, P; Danny Estrella, OF; Shane Mills, INF/P; Alex Villafuerte, P; Mike Marchione, OF; Eric Ruge, P; Kyle Garrett, OF.

* Who’s back: Noel Castro, C/P/1B, Sr. (.357, 35 hits, nine extra-base hits, 30 RBI); Nick Mejia, 3B/P, Jr. (.261, 18 hits, four extra-base hits, 15 RBI); Angelo Smith, P/OF, So. (4-2, 3.76 ERA, 32 Ks in 41 IP); Brett Thomas, P/OF/1B, Sr. (4-0, 3.62 ERA, 18 Ks in 29 IP); TJ Spyrnal, P/OF, Sr.; Andrew Zemke, 1B/DH, Sr. (.333 in summer); Adrian Garcia, P. Sr.; Jason Avery, 2B, Sr.

* Who’s new: Chris Zeschke, SS/Pm Jr.; Ryan Renken, INF/P, Jr.; Ryan Willett, OF, Sr.; Nick Fritz, OF/P, Jr.; Mitch Crook, C/DH, Jr.; Tim Houlihan, OF, Jr.

* Outlook: The dean of area baseball coaches, Brian Wujcik enters his 23rd season as head of the varsity program at his high school alma mater. His longevity and 448 career wins were recently recognized by the Illinois Baseball Coaches Association, which chose Wujcik as one of the newest members of its Hall of Fame. But he doesn’t want to rest on any past laurels, which included a superb 25-9 ledger and South Suburban Conference Red title in 2014.

            What’s likely in store for Wujcik this spring is a return to heavy-duty teaching. Such is the situation when 13 seniors exit the program, which happened to the Bulldogs. Seven of those 13 graduates are on college rosters in 2015, so there was obviously quality amid the quantity. And that isn’t the only change -- longtime pitching coach Kevin Quinn has retired, so Richards’ hurlers will receive instruction from first-year assistant Kevin Lee. Interestingly, Wujcik considers his mound corps one of the Bulldogs’ potential strengths.

            A big reason for that is sophomore Angelo Smith, who in 2014 became just the second freshman to ever begin his high school baseball career at Richards on the varsity roster. Smith won four times in his debut season and Wujcik believes he “should become our first certifiable ace of the Richards staff since Jon Ryan graduated in 2010.” Senior Brett Thomas, who went 4-0 a year ago, is also being counted on to fill a spot in the rotation as are juniors Nick Mejia and Chris Zeschke, the latter of whom Wujcik describes as a “triple threat” due to his ability to also hit well and play solid defense. Seniors TJ Spyrnal and Adrian Garcia are other pitchers who’ll get long looks from Wujcik and Lee.

            Senior Noel Castro, who will see some action on the hill too, is the Bulldogs’ most established offensive threat and, assuming he gets some protection within the batting order, could perhaps flirt with the .400 mark after hitting .357 with 30 RBI last spring. Castro will shift from first base to catcher, where he’ll take over for three-year starter Charlie Zeschke. Mejia, who’ll play third on days he doesn’t pitch, and Andrew Zemke, who performed admirably in the summer, are two others who should be steady contributors with the stick.

It would help immensely if some heretofore unknowns stepped forward to provide added punch -- among the candidates are senior Jason Avery, junior Ryan Renken and senior Ryan Willett, an all-area wide receiver in the fall who sat out all of his junior baseball season because of a shoulder injury. Willett’s speed will make him an ideal table-setter for the meat of the order.

While the Bulldogs are the defending conference champs, Wujcik said they should not be picked as the preseason favorite to repeat due to the large amount of personnel turnover. He admitted lineup experimentation will occur during the early part of the schedule and said it “will take a little time for this team to form an identity.” However, Richards definitely won’t lack for motivation -- still somewhat fresh in everyone’s minds is the unceremonious end to the 2014 campaign, where Stagg, a team that lost 14-4 to the Bulldogs during the regular season, administered payback with a 4-1 triumph in Richards’ opening playoff contest.

* Coach’s comments: “Positions are wide open to be won at the start of the season. This translates to good news for the guys on the team as everyone should have a chance to prove that he belongs in the everyday lineup. We’re not going to have a very large roster, so we will lean on a lot of guys to fill a lot of different roles depending on the game and our opponent.

            “Pitching should be our strength, but we have some talented athletes on the squad, so the fielding and hitting should catch up to the pitching as the season goes on. This team is athletic, so it should be a season where we get stronger as we get more experience under our belts.” -- Wujcik

SANDBURG

2014 Record: 24-9.

Head coach: Jim Morsovillo (70-27).

Assistant coaches: George Fear, Chuck Peters.

* Who’s gone: Matthias Dietz, P; Bryan Pall, P; Sean Leland, P; Chris Stearns, OF; Alec Martinez, INF/P; Dan Santiago, OF; Julian Gutierrez, OF; Mike Jentel, P.

* Who’s back: Jimmy Roche, SS/P, Sr.; Jim Landgraf, LF, Sr.; Ben Kociper, 2B, Sr.; Danny Dziadkowiec, DH/OF, Sr.; Griffin Kazmierczak, C, Sr.; Jake Tablerion, P, Sr.; Kenny Michalowski, P, Sr.; Eric Nelson, P, Sr.

* Who’s new: Andy Gaytan, CF, Jr.; Trevor Faille, 1B/P, Jr., Nick Kuchel, OF, Jr.; Collin Collery, P, Sr.; Jack Wolfe, 2B/P.

* Outlook: A farewell to arms -- besides being an Ernest Hemingway novel it also describes an offseason action the Eagles were forced to perform. Pitching has pretty much been a constant in Sandburg’s baseball world over the years as the Eagles have rarely been without at least one difference-making hurler in any given season. But even at a school that has presented such legendary prep names as Brian Forystek, Todd Mensik, Greg Billo and Nick Chmielewski, perhaps never before had there been as good a trio as Matthias Dietz, Bryan Pall and Sean Leland on the scene at the same time.

            Pall (University of Michigan) and Leland (Louisville) already had announced their college destinations before the 2014 season, but the guy who had not wound up being perhaps the best of the trio. Dietz earned first-team all-area status, Pall and Leland were both second-team selections, and the threesome combined to go 19-6 with 233 strikeouts between them. The highest individual earned-run average was 1.02 and their strikeouts-to-walks ratios were all 4-to-1 or better.

            Replacing that level of dominance could very well be impossible for the Eagles, although it wouldn’t be shocking to see at least one relative unknown emerge. What Sandburg needs is for its offense to take some of the stress off the pitching staff, something that didn’t really happen with any regularity a year ago and may have been the biggest reason for the Eagles’ failure to advance deeper into the postseason. Sandburg did manage to capture its first regional title since 2011, but Providence Catholic prevailed in a sectional semifinal. Still, there’s no ignoring the fact that the Eagles remain one of the south suburbs’ prominent prep baseball programs three years into Jim Morsovillo’s head-coaching tenure.

            Morsovillo’s 2015 pitching staff will feature seniors Jake Tablerion, Kenny Michalowski and Eric Nelson as headliners. Senior Collin Collery, who did not play last season, and junior Jack Wolfe are a couple other possibilities on the hill. Who might develop into a stopper from that group remains to be seen, but while the hurlers work to establish themselves some positional veterans will be expected to step forward and lead.

            All-area second-team outfielder Chris Stearns was lost to graduation and infield/pitcher Alec Martinez won’t play because of an ACL injury suffered during basketball season. That leaves the heavy lifting for returning infielders Jimmy Roche and Ben Kociper, outfielder Jim Landgraf, catcher Griffin Kazmierczak and DH Danny Dziadkowiec, none of whom yet carries a pitchers-fear-him reputation. However, Morsovillo and assistants Chuck Peters and George Fear were all good hitters in their playing days and should find a way to maximize whatever athletic talent is available to them. Newcomers Andy Gaytan, Trevor Faille and Nick Kuchel will also be in the hunt for playing time.

            The SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue always provides a rugged test and the Eagles never shy away from strong nonconference opposition either. While that could result in some early hiccups as a number of guys get acclimated to their roles, pegging Sandburg as anything less than a serious challenger for league supremacy and a legitimate threat to do postseason damage would seem shortsighted.

* Coach’s comments: “We lost three seniors on the mound from last season that were dominating and sucked up innings. We need the seniors to lead through their experiences as junior starters and the newcomers to play hard and learn to compete daily.” -- Morsovillo

SHEPARD

2014 Record: 16-17.

Head coach: Frank DiFoggio (282-286-4).

Assistant coaches: Dan Hennigan, Jim Schmidt.

* Who’s gone: Kevin Knoerzer, OF/P; Brendan Hermann, P/INF/OF; Jake Hart, OF/DH/P; Sam Hermanas, INF.

* Who’s back: Bobby Peterka, C/OF, Sr. (.311, .522 slugging pct., .966 fielding pct., 28 hits, 14 doubles, 32 RBI); Mark Albrecht, INF/OF, Sr. (.286, 22 hits, 19 runs, 18 walks); Ken Gorski, INF/OF, Jr. (.356, .929 fielding pct.); Adam Gregory, P/1B, Sr. (54 Ks in 44 2/3 IP, four wins); Eric Horbach, SS/P, Sr. (.300, 27 hits, 17 runs, 17 walks, 9 steals; 3-1); Brett Smith, P/INF/OF, Sr. (5-3, 69 Ks in 54 2/3 IP); Kevin Carmody, OF, Jr. (.286, 22 hits, 17 runs, 21 walks); Kyle Longfield, P/OF, Sr. (1-1, 24 Ks in 21 1/3 IP); Zach Haxel, C/INF/P, Sr.; Rick Mundo, C/INF/P, Sr.

* Who’s new: Jack Carberry, P, So.; Rob Marinec, C/OF/INF, So.; Logan Couture, INF/P, Jr.

* Outlook: Frank DiFoggio has been coaching too long to get caught up in any hoopla, but even he is excited about what may lie ahead for the Astros. On only one other occasion has DiFoggio welcomed back as many players as he is in 2015, and that happened 16 years ago. While experience alone doesn’t automatically translate into on-field success, what makes this latest veteran-fest particularly notable is that Shepard played solid baseball the second half of 2014.

            After one of their typical slow breaks from the gate that bottomed out at 5-12, the Astros won 11 of their last 16 games -- including a playoff contest -- and the pitchers responsible for nine of those triumphs are back to try for more. Two of them, Adam Gregory and Brett Smith, combined on a season-opening one-hitter versus Illiana Christian and struck out a dozen batters between them in a 5-0 conquest. In 2014 the two totaled 123 whiffs in just under 100 innings, so their efforts against the Vikings weren’t out of the ordinary. Eric Horbach, one of three four-year varsity players on the roster, will also be counted on in the rotation.

Giving the staff even greater depth are senior Kyle Longfield, who was hurt for a large chunk of last season, and sophomore Jack Carberry, who showed plenty of potential in a late-May call-up as he went toe-to-toe with Manteno, a team that advanced deep into the Class 3A playoffs soon after Carberry notched a 9-4 victory over it. Longfield, a three-sport athlete at Shepard, is coming off an all-area basketball campaign in which he was one of the south suburbs’ best rebounders. Another arm that could be summoned by DiFoggio belongs to junior Logan Couture.

The Astros’ pitchers won’t have to be perfect thanks to a lineup that should be much improved over last spring, when only a handful of hitters reached the .300 mark. Fourth-year men Mark Albrecht and Bobby Peterka are the ringleaders, but Horbach, Gregory, Smith, Ken Gorski and Kevin Carmody all figure to be steady contributors as well. While the departed Kevin Knoerzer was Shepard’s most consistent offensive performer in 2014, Peterka was good enough to pace the Astros in doubles (14) and RBI (32) and slug one of their four homers. Albrecht, Gorski and Gregory were the other long-ball guys.

Defense should also be a strength. Peterka committed only seven errors in 204 chances and as a team Shepard was guilty of an average of 2 ½ per game, a stat that was elevated by the Astros’ early struggles.

While DiFoggio isn’t about to proclaim his squad the one to beat for a South Suburban Conference Red championship, that may indeed be the case. Nobody else has as many game-tested resources available to them, and DiFoggio does admit “this was the year we kind of targeted” as one of the program’s higher-achieving ones.

* Coach’s comments: “We were a bunch of babies last year. We kind of learned on the fly and that’s kind of our strength this year -- we won’t have to go through that this year [because] we’ve been through it all before.

            “I’m hoping we will not start slow this year, like we always seem to do. We want this year to be a good one.” DiFoggio

STAGG

2014 Record: 17-19.

Head coach: Matt O’Neill (142-138).

Assistant coaches: Mike Darrah, Tom Syska, Brendan Loughery.

* Who’s gone: Max Strus, P/INF/OF; Jake Wimmer, INF; Peter Angelos, INF; CJ Casey, OF; Nick Nowak, C; Jimmy Farnan, OF; Brendan Kivlehan, INF; Drew Bolero, INF; Jack Duffner, OF.

* Who’s back: Brett Stratinsky, 1B, Sr.; Calagelo Martinez, OF, Sr.; Ethan Glaza, INF, Sr.; Nick Gerzon, P/INF, Sr.; Joe Zaremba, OF, Sr.; Austin Greer, P/INF; Gus Martinez, INF, Sr.

* Who’s new: Josh Nowak, C/INF/P, Jr.; Mike Crosby, P/INF, Jr.; Max Downs, P/OF, Jr.; Gary Kopca, C/OF, Jr.; Nick Worst, P/INF, Jr; Nate Miranda, INF/P, Jr.

* Outlook: It’s typically been easy to overlook the Chargers, save for those years when they’ve unleashed someone with star power such as pitcher TJ McFarland and first baseman Justin Ringo. In most instances, though, Stagg almost ranks as an afterthought, in part because of its size -- among SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue schools it’s the little guy and therefore it frequently gets relegated to something resembling kid-brother status.

            But just when most people have basically forgotten about them, along come the Chargers to spring a surprise. That certainly happened during the 2014 campaign. Stagg scuffled in the early portion of the schedule but got its act together over the season’s last month, a stretch that included victories against three straight regional opponents and the capturing of its first postseason championship since 2008. One of the wins may have best illustrated the Chargers’ growth as a team -- they beat Richards 4-1 in the playoffs after getting slaughter-ruled by the Bulldogs in a regular-season matchup.

            While Stagg ended a title drought by edging Lincoln-Way East right after downing Richards, it was actually a regional finalist six times in Matt O’Neill’s first eight coaching seasons. So the idea of having future success shouldn’t be considered a radical one.

            What triggered the Chargers’ surge last spring was significant improvement on defense and in their pitching. Against the Griffins, for instance, Stagg played errorless ball and Max Strus tossed a shutout over the last 4 2/3 innings, during which time he threw 40 of 59 pitches for strikes. Of course, Strus and several other 2014 contributors are gone, but O’Neill isn’t sweating it -- in fact he’s looking forward to the 2015 season.

            He claims this latest edition of the Chargers “should be one of the better offensive teams that we’ve had in the past couple of years” because middle-of-the-lineup guys like Brett Stratinsky and Calogelo Martinez return to provide some batting pop. Stratinsky went deep twice against Richards and is a legitimate power threat. Ethan Glaza, Joe Zaremba and Austin Greer are other veterans who've shown in the past that they can be productive. Youngers players to keep an eye on are Gary Kopca, who already has positively influenced Stagg’s varsity football team, hard-nosed basketball player Nick Worst and Brother Rice transfer Josh Nowak.

Nick Gerzon is probably the most tested pitching arm, but there is a degree of uncertainty beyond him. O’Neill put a “P” alongside many names in the position column of his roster, indicating he’s looking at several possibilities when it comes to filling in around Gerzon. If that is satisfactorily accomplished and a somewhat reliable staff can be assembled, the Chargers could be a tougher out within the SWSC Blue than the casual fan might suspect.

* Coach’s comments: “There is quality depth at all positions and competition for jobs will be interesting -- there could be platoon situations at a couple of positions. I believe that our defense will be one of our strengths [and] I expect us to score more runs than we did the last couple of years.

            “[But] our pitching is going to decide how well we compete in our league, considering how good everyone is, and the biggest question mark will be on the mound. We have a couple of returners but will need some positional players who haven’t pitched a lot in the past to step up and eat some innings.” -- O’Neill

ST. LAURENCE

2014 Record: 32-6.

Head coach: Pete Lotus (250-77).

Assistant coaches: Adam Lotus, Matt McHugh.

* Who’s gone: Mike Kornacker, P/INF; Brad Wood, P/INF; T.J. Marik, C; Roger Wilson, 1B/P; Mike Miller, OF; Alex Hitney, P; Nate Tholl, INF; Kevin White, OF/C; Rob Gutierrez, P/OF.

* Who’s back: Frank Greco, P/2B, Sr. (7-0, 0.36 ERA); John Riordan, P/3B, Sr. (4-2, 2.00 ERA); Anthony Chimera, OF/P, Sr.; Sean Burnette, OF, Sr.; Mike Finger, OF, Sr.; Nick Verta, SS, Sr.; Zach Erdman, P, Sr.; Jake Tholl, C, Sr.; Mike Munoz, P, Sr.; Kevin Aderman, OF, Sr.; Dan Cummings, INF, Sr.; Rich Lamb, 1B, Sr.

* Who’s new: Anthony Rios, C, Jr.; Anthony Robles, OF/P, Jr.; Jack Cavanaugh, INF/P, Jr.; Dan Heiden, P, Jr.; Tom Farrell, 1B/P, So.; Jimmy Burnette, OF, P, So.

* Outlook: Certain schools gain reputations in athletics based on success in a particular sport. Mt. Carmel, for instance, captured a state baseball championship a couple years ago and has a variety of other titles in its collection, but it will always be best known for its achievements in football. And Thornton has long been noted for basketball excellence, even though its football program was represented on NFL rosters by eight former players several years ago.

            What does this have to do with the Vikings? Well, baseball is not just the national pastime, it’s what many people think of first when St. Laurence sports programs are mentioned. That’s not by accident -- in the nine years since former player Pete Lotus took over as varsity coach, the Vikings have averaged a staggering 27 victories per season. Whereas St. Laurence once longed to be one of the Chicago Catholic League’s big boys on the diamond, now other teams use the Vikings as inspiration to do whatever is necessary to improve.

            Obviously Lotus hasn’t achieved all this by himself, but attracting talented athletes becomes easier once a standard of quality has been set. The trouble is those players only have a limited amount of eligibility, and in 2015 St. Laurence must retool after seeing a slew of big-time contributors move on. Six of the Vikings’ graduates were members of this paper’s 2014 all-area squad, including first-teamers Mike Kornacker (Purdue University) and Brad Wood (Northern Illinois), the former of whom was the 2013 Player of the Year. So there is a definite need to find able replacements.

            In Lotus’ opinion they’re available to him. While replacing guys like Kornacker and Wood will understandably be difficult, St. Laurence is not without some proven pieces in place. One of those is senior Frank Greco, who has committed to the University of St. Francis. Although overshadowed by some of his older teammates Greco went 7-0 on the mound with a 0.36 earned-run average, a performance that got him named to last spring’s all-area second team. He and John Riordan (4-1, 2.00 ERA) should be a more-than-adequate 1-2 pitching punch while outfielders Sean Burnette and Anthony Chimera will be anchors on the offensive side. Zach Erdman and Mike Munoz are other candidates for steady work on the hill.

            Jake Tholl is expected to take over for T.J. Marik behind the dish, Nick Verta has the inside track to be the first-string shortstop and Mike Finger could become the third outfielder. Also in the hunt for jobs will be senior basketball players Kevin Aderman (outfield), Dan Cummings (infield) and Rich Lamb (first base). Some newcomers could make their presences felt too -- sophomore Tommy Farrell, for instance, had some shining moments during summer-league play and both Anthony Rios and Anthony Robles also performed well in that setting.

            Given the Vikings’ rich history over the past decade the 2015 club will have to hit the ground running because those outside the program have come to expect a certain level of accomplishment. That’s fine with Lotus, who isn’t scaling down his goals just because some new faces are in the mix. Don’t rule out another big batch of wins, and one more run at a Catholic League Blue crown is entirely possible.

* Coach’s comments: “We welcome a highly talented junior class to our senior class that has been very successful. We have a bunch of leaders on the team and we believe this will lead to a successful season.

            “We have a hard-working and dedicated team that we believe will be able to pitch and play defense well. If we can hit consistently and get timely hitting, we feel we can contend for the conference championship and in the state tournament. We love our team’s work ethic and dedication toward St. Laurence and to each other.” -- Lotus