Leader of the pack
Spartans now sitting atop SSC Red
By Ken Karrson
Not all that long ago Oak Lawn could have been described as being behind the 8-ball.
As the current week got underway, however, the Spartans are behind no one in the South Suburban Conference Red.
In the midst of his team’s well-documented early season struggles, Oak Lawn coach Bill Gerny’s wish was that the difficulties would serve as a means for the Spartans to better clear future obstacles. And that wish has definitely been granted.
When Oak Lawn completed a two-game sweep of neighboring Reavis with a 3-1 victory last Tuesday, it did itself a huge favor in terms of positioning within the SSC Red. After Thursday’s 6-2 triumph over Bremen was factored in as well, the Spartans stood at 8-1 in league play and were one ahead of Shepard in the loss column.
The win was Oak Lawn’s 10th in 13 games.
“We’re picking a good time to be playing some very effective baseball,” Gerny said. “Even our kids and our parents were [once] questioning [what was happening] and I didn’t expect this [surge], but I feel like we’ve gotten better every week. Everybody’s playing with such confidence right now.
“Everybody’s kind of picking each other up. It’s exciting to think if we keep improving at the rate we have been what this team can accomplish.”
What the Spartans (11-10, 8-1) accomplished against the Rams was something of a rarity.
“It’s been a while [since we swept them],” Gerny said. “It seems like they always beat us once. They’re so well-coached and they rarely beat themselves. Winning Monday took the pressure off a little bit.”
Oak Lawn notched its 6-4 triumph by withstanding some late noisemaking by Reavis, which trailed 6-1 after four innings on Monday. Matt Witkowski managed to pitch a complete game for the Spartans despite getting reached for seven hits. He fanned nine and walked three.
“He pitched well,” Gerny said of the senior. “His two losses were to Mt. Carmel and Lincoln-Way North, two teams that if you don’t hit your spots every time they’re going to make you pay for every mistake. He’s in that [must-do] mindset now. If he does miss here or there, it’s not the catastrophic results against some of these other teams.”
Oak Lawn gave Witkowski a 3-0 advantage to protect right away as Joe Dodaro slugged a three-run homer in the top of the first. Boo Quillin had singled ahead of him and another batter got plunked by a pitch.
“Quillin and Dodaro have been locked in at the plate the last two weeks,” Gerny said.
Quillin’s triple set up another run in the fourth as he crossed the plate on Patrick Slattery’s single. Before that occurred, the Spartans picked up a couple third-inning markers on Ivan Georgelos’ groundout and a Rams error.
When his club struck for another three-spot in its initial at-bat on Tuesday, Gerny was expecting more fireworks.
“It felt like we were going to score 10 runs,” he said.
Andrew Padilla saw to it that didn’t happen. The Reavis pitcher settled down after his shaky start and held the Spartans at bay the rest of the way.
“We beat it into the ground a lot, hit into a double play once and were caught stealing,” Gerny said.
Luckily for Oak Lawn, Chad Cwik was equal to the task before him. The Spartans’ sophomore hurler struck out five and allowed two hits over six stanzas, but five walks helped raise his pitch count to 90 and caused Gerny to summon Yunis Halim, who whiffed two in a quiet seventh inning.
The bases-on-balls created some “high-stress innings” according to Gerny, but he still felt Cwik performed well.
“You take away those five walks, it was a spectacular outing,” Gerny said.
John Roberts’ double and Georgelos’ two-RBI single accounted for Oak Lawn’s scoring. Roberts went 3-for-3 in the game.
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Quillin, Slattery and Roberts were a combined 11-for-12 on Thursday, a display that carried the Spartans to their eighth SSC victory. Oak Lawn won just 10 of its 19 conference contests a year ago and only 13 times overall.
In addition to his batting, Quillin tossed a four-hitter with eight strikeouts and one walk. He has surrendered only one earned run in 15 innings as a starter thus far and gives Gerny “a really nice problem to have” in terms of having three pitchers who instill confidence in their coach.
Spartans assistant coach Tim Lyons had mentioned beforehand this encounter had “the feel of a trap game” since the Braves are not a big rival for Oak Lawn, but hits by Quillin, Slattery (double) and Roberts (RBI double) plus Dodaro’s run-producing groundout gave the Spartans a lead they would not relinquish.
Singles from Liam Blake, Roberts (two RBI) and Quillin provided the remainder of Oak Lawn’s tallies. Roberts’ hit was made meaningful by Dodaro, who sacrificed two men into scoring position.
“Dodaro’s one of our hottest hitters and he’s been an RBI machine, but he wanted to lay down that bunt,” Gerny said. “That shows our guys are starting to see the bigger picture. If we’re going to win [tight games], our bunting has to [continue to] improve.”
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The week ended on a sour note as the Spartans were unable to hold a 4-1 edge and dropped a verdict to the Warriors on Friday. Willowbrook scored all but one of its runs between the fourth and sixth frames.
“We have to do a better job of taking care of teams we don’t have a personal grudge against,” Gerny said. “They really did put a hurt on us. That team could just flat-out hit.”
Oak Lawn managed only six hits of its own, none of which factored into the scoring. Garnering RBI were Quillin (bases-loaded walk), Slattery (sacrifice fly) and Roberts (groundout). Halim absorbed the pitching defeat.