Making the grade -- and then some

  • Written by Ken Karrson




Making the grade -- and then some

Shepard’s Martinez not too busy to earn spot on state all-academic team

By Bob Roubik


            The term “student-athlete” too often is a misnomer.

            While the student part always gets mentioned first, reality frequently differs. Sports not only becomes an individual’s primary identity, it also supersedes all else.

            That’s fine if it prevents an athlete from engaging in improper behavior, but what about those times when games overshadow grades?

            Nicholas Martinez wouldn’t know about that. While many who know his name might initially think of Martinez as a tennis player at Shepard, that represents only a piece of his high school existence -- and definitely not the largest one.

            Academics are more than an intrusion into Martinez’s daily life. They are a necessary challenge to conquer, something he had done in impressive fashion.

            Martinez was one of 26 student-athletes across Illinois to be chosen for the IHSA All-Academic team. Ranked sixth in a class of 444 students at Shepard, Martinez boasts a 5.16 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale thanks to a number of advanced-placement courses and scored a 33 on his ACT. He has received honors with distinction for all seven of his semesters in high school.

“We’ve never had someone on the all-academic team before,” Astros tennis coach Dmitri Cooper said. “It really is a tremendous honor and it shows his strength of character (and) how involved and dependable he is.”

He’s quite busy too. As if maintaining such a lofty GPA and competing in a varsity sports weren’t enough to keep Martinez occupied, there’s more -- much more.

He’s also a member of the National Honor Society and Shepard’s speech team, participates in mathletes, is a peer mentor, an ambassador for the school’s service club and the student-body president.

“It can be overwhelming, but I think that I am one of those people [who needs to stay busy],” Martinez said. “My whole family is definitely that type of people.

“I grew up on a very rigorous schedule. My oldest brother is a hockey player, so I grew up going to school, getting in the car, driving hours to go to hockey tournaments, eating on the road and getting home super late. It’s no surprise that's the way I turned out.”

Martinez’s involvement with mathletes isn’t too great a surprise, seeing as how he wants to study that as a student at Notre Dame next year and use it as a means by which to enter the business world upon college graduation.

“Math has always been my favorite [subject],” Martinez said. “Ever since I was little my parents would be doing flash cards with me on the road, in the bathtub, everywhere.”

No wonder that Martinez can be found writing scores in Cooper’s book when not involved in a match. But Martinez doesn’t shortchange any of his other activities either.

“If he’s not practicing that day, he’s encouraging others to practice,” speech coach Jeff Vazzana said of Martinez. “He’s getting involved, he’s making sure people are memorizing, he’s making sure that everybody knows the schedule for the next week. He’s very, very dependable.

“He’s the kid that as he’s leaving you say, ‘Can you make sure everyone is here on the bus at 6:15 in the morning?’ And if he needs to he’ll call everybody that morning and get it done.”

Martinez’s main speech event is humorous interpretation.

“It's a very different category within speech,” he said. “Basically, you have a story with multiple characters, a humorous story. You play all those characters and you have different voices, different facial expressions, different ways that you hold yourself to distinguish these characters and people who aren’t familiar with speech tend not to understand right away because it's very, very different.”

            “Speech is similar to how track works -- there's multiple events where your team is competing to points overall,” said Vazzana, who coaches 130 kids in speech. “Nick is in one of the events. How he performs gives a certain amount of points for the whole team.

“Shepard was consistently the best team in the state this season. We didn’t do as well in the IHSA state series, but in terms of the preliminary tournaments throughout the year we consistently won tournaments and Nick was consistently in the top of what we call making it into final rounds. There could be 75 or 100 kids performing in his event and he’d be in the top six.”

Vazzana has seen Martinez in action in the classroom too, having taught him in honors English when Martinez was a freshman and AP language in the latter’s junior year. Vazzana said Martinez’s selection to the National Honor Society, which requires community- and school-oriented service work in addition to good grades, was pretty much a no-brainer.

There’s a committee that decides who has exceptional scholarship and character within the school and they can accept or deny the students,” Vazzana said. “Nick was an easy decision because of his exceptional character.”

Cooper has never had the opportunity to instruct Martinez, at least in a standard setting. There has been teaching done on the courts, however, but that was left entirely up to Cooper.

Martinez was introduced to tennis at age 8 and began taking lessons a couple years after that. His older brother played for Cooper and Martinez followed suit as a four-year varsity member.

“I just really like the game because it allows me to be competitive,” Martinez said. “I don’t get to express too much of that in my acting side of the spectrum. I get my physical energy out I guess.”

Besides playing at No. 3 doubles for the Astros, Martinez provides them with a number of intangibles.

“He gets all the kids uplifted and inspired,” Cooper said. “He’s always there to [help] make sure things run smoothly. He’s one of the players on my team that always steps up and just wants to be in that leader role. He’s just a super kid.

“Nick is one of those kids that I hope when he graduates he contacts us and lets us know how he's doing because when he leaves there's going to be a ‘Nick-shaped’ hole in the wall because he's made such an impression on this school,” Vazzana said. “When he leaves, the school won’t be the same. I want to know how he's doing because he's impacted us just as much as we've impacted him.”


Spartans in the driver's seat

  • Written by Ken Karrson


Spartans in the driver’s seat

Their SSC Red lead grows after more wins


By Ken Karrson

Sports Editor


            Hertz didn’t need to put Oak Lawn in the driver’s seat. The Spartans did it themselves.

            What placed Oak Lawn in control of the South Suburban Conference Red race was a continuation of its recent play. The Spartans have hit only minor bumps over the past few weeks and Evergreen Park was unable to alter that trend last week.

            Oh, the Mustangs certainly tried, particularly in the opener of a two-game series on Monday. Senior Brian Pall, fresh off a dominating performance versus Shepard in which he struck out 15 and allowed only a bunt single, was strong again as he limited Oak Lawn to four hits while fanning eight.

            “It seemed like his curveball got sharper as the game went along,” Spartans coach Bill Gerny said. “After starting at our knees, it was biting right into the dirt and it was tough for our guys to lay off that. We swung at a lot of bad pitches.

            “Nothing was going our way offensively. The way we were swinging the bats, we were fortunate to get that last run off him.”

            But that was the one making the difference for Oak Lawn, which stayed in the hunt thanks to a masterful exhibition by its own hurler, Matt Witkowski. Witkowski was nicked for a run in the first but no others, so when the Spartans capitalized on an Evergreen error in the sixth to scratch out a score, they were able to bag a hard-fought 2-1 triumph.

            And with that one in its possession, Oak Lawn finished off the Mustangs with far less difficulty on Tuesday as it captured a 9-0 victory. With a 10-0 rout of TF North in a Thursday crossover also factored in, the Spartans entered the current week with just one loss in 12 SSC encounters and, more importantly, a 2 ½-game advantage over second-place Shepard.

            “Our guys are playing looser and more relaxed,” Gerny said. “We haven’t had this hot a start [in conference play] since I’ve been here.”

            And Gerny didn’t want to risk anything by taking struggling TF North for granted. Instead of letting pitcher Chad Cwik be used in a lower-level meeting with Evergreen, Gerny put the sophomore on the hill versus the Meteors varsity, where Cwik delivered three innings of one-hit, four-strikeout ball.

            “We didn’t want to have a 5-3 win over them, where guys are starting to doubt themselves a little bit,” Gerny said. “They’re playing with so much confidence [that] we want to keep it rolling into the tougher part of our schedule. If our guys take their foot off the gas even a little bit, we could be down 4-0 right away.”

            Gerny wasn’t referring to TF North with that statement, but to the Mustangs, who were obviously seeking to make amends for Monday’s gut-wrenching setback with a winning performance the next day. But with their coach’s reminder that another success against Evergreen could pretty much remove the latter from SSC Red title contention ringing in their ears, the Spartans didn’t give the Mustangs a chance to gain their footing.

            Instead, Oak Lawn piled up six second-inning runs to seize command of the proceedings. No. 9 hitter Yunis Halim’s check-swing RBI single signaled the start of the Spartans’ rally and Boo Quillin knocked in two more teammates with his hit. Other RBI men in the frame were Joe Dodaro (single), Liam Blake (single) and Patrick Slattery (groundout).

            “Our guys aren’t hitting home runs, but everybody’s making real solid contact and having good at-bats,” Gerny said. “Our guys came out with a lot of energy.”

            By Gerny’s estimation, Quillin didn’t have “his best stuff” on the mound, but the latter still was good enough to hamstring the Mustangs in several key instances. Quillin, who struck out seven while scattering seven hits, turned Evergreen away three times after it had loaded the bases.

            “[If] we get a couple runs there in any of those innings, it changes the momentum,” Mustangs coach Mark Smyth said. “We’re not swinging the bats [well] right now so we’re not going to catch anyone from behind.”

            The one inning Smyth particularly rued was the fourth. Evergreen had filled the sacks with less than two outs, but Quillin slipped a called third strike past the Mustangs’ No. 9 batter and then retired dangerous Mark Martin on a fly ball.

            “We’ll take that [scenario] any day of the week,” Smyth said, referring to Martin’s presence at the plate then.”

            Martin garnered hits on two other occasions and matched Mike Rizzo for the team lead. Quillin and John Roberts both stroked three hits to pace Oak Lawn (14-10, 11-1), which totaled 13 to go along with eight walks. Roberts and Dodaro both had later RBI for the Spartans.

            “We still felt that even if we got one [win], we could be in the [divisional] race,” Smyth said. “Now we need a lot of help.”


            Monday’s clash wasn’t resolved until the sixth as Ivan Georgelos’ sacrifice fly for Oak Lawn and Sean Miller’s double for Evergreen represented the only scoring prior to that.

            “It was a great ballgame, but both [of the Spartans’] runs could have been prevented,” Smyth said. “We could not support [Pall] with enough offense. Witkowski threw a couple nice changeups [to us].”

            “He’s developed a changeup that’s been working and locating his pitches real well,” Gerny said of his senior mound man. “He’s been lights out.

“You thought one of us was [eventually] going to score a run we didn’t deserve. That first game [against the Mustangs] gave us momentum going into the second game.”

            Witkowski went the distance on 92 pitches to pocket his fifth win in seven tries. All of the victories have come in succession even though he is regularly squaring off with the opposition’s top hurler.

                        Oak Lawn      10

                        TF North        0

            It took the Spartans just a couple innings on Thursday to bury the Meteors in a deep hole. Five runs in the second gave Oak Lawn a 6-0 lead and Cwik took it from there.

            Quillin went 4-for-4 with a double, three runs and two RBI to lead the Spartans’ onslaught. Roberts and Georgelos both added two hits, Dodaro drove in three runs and five players in all were credited with at least one RBI.

            The Spartans’ only encounters this week were against SSC Blue heavyweights Oak Forest and Lemont. Earning success against that duo might make Gerny believe his club has cleared another hurdle.

            “We’re having a real nice season, but we haven’t beaten any of the established [powerhouse] programs yet,” he said.

                        Evergreen Park         24

                        Hillcrest          0

            The beleaguered Hawks popped up at a good time on the Mustangs’ schedule as Evergreen (10-6, 4-5) felt much better after taking out some of its frustration in Thursday’s SSC crossover.

            Eleven Mustangs had hits, a group paced by Miller, who totaled three hits, four RBI and four runs. One of his safeties went for two bases. Other multiple-hit performers included Martin (double, triple, four runs, two RBI), Ronnie O’Toole (double, triple, three RBI), Will Doran (two hits, two RBI, three runs), Rizzo (two hits, two RBI, two runs) and Joe Piet (two doubles, two RBI, one run).

            Jimmy Segura logged his first pitching triumph by firing a three-hitter, striking out 10 and walking only one.

            In its last outing of the week, Evergreen pummeled Urban Prep with a 12-run first inning and went on to claim a 12-0 win.


Caravan cause collapse

  • Written by Ken Karrson


Caravan cause collapse

Vikings, Crusaders both run afoul of Mt. Carmel


By Ken Karrson

Sports Editor


Two years ago Mt. Carmel captured a Class 4A baseball championship for the first time.

Don’t be shocked if the Caravan go back for seconds this June.

If last week’s display offered any sort of accurate glimpse at Mt. Carmel’s abilities -- and based on the Caravan’s glossy season record it probably did -- the Chicago Catholic League Blue squad will be a tough out come playoff time. Mt. Carmel was certainly formidable in four league outings against local schools St. Laurence and Brother Rice.

Neither team was able to solve the Caravan, who left both with an uphill climb to regain challenger status within the CCL Blue. That’s especially true for the Vikings, whose two setbacks versus Mt. Carmel were preceded by a pair against defending 4A kingpin Providence Catholic.

“It’s a different spot [for us],” St. Laurence coach Pete Lotus said. “It’s the first time in my 10 years we’re in this position. We have a lot to work on.

“We have good kids -- they work hard and I know it’s been hard on them [to experience this]. I think we’ll get it figured out.”

Rice was able to do some quick rebuilding of confidence at Loyola Academy’s expense. After falling to the Caravan -- once by the mercy rule -- the Crusaders rebounded to defeat the Ramblers 8-4 and 8-5 on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively.

“It was an emotional roller coaster on Monday and Tuesday,” Rice coach John McCarthy said. “We had hit rock bottom on where we were emotionally as far as how good we were. I think we had lost a little bit of self-confidence.

“It was a huge point in the season for us, but I’m proud of the guys for bonding together and coming back. We got stronger [after that].”

            Mt. Carmel    10-13

            St. Laurence  1-3

Already licking their wounds after a double dip at Providence’s hands, the Vikings were hoping to get back on track last Wednesday. Instead, Caravan sophomore Cameron Hupe stymied St. Laurence’s offense by allowing just four hits while Mt. Carmel banged out 14 against three Vikings hurlers.

While the discrepancy was evident, Lotus didn’t think his pitchers deserved all the blame. He noted they were undermined by a defense that committed four errors and never did settle into a groove last week.

“You’re going to have some rough innings against good teams, but I really expected us to play better [overall],” Lotus said. “It felt like we were down by more than we were [early on]. It was frustrating because I think again we had pretty good pitching.

“We tried to address what it takes to be successful in the Catholic League Blue, but we haven’t been doing some things to make it happen [like] getting clutch hits and making plays [in the field]. We have to remember we’re a little bit young and we don’t have a lot of guys who’ve been through it [before]. We’re feeling our way through things -- that’s a tough way to play.”

The main thing, according to Lotus, is making sure his athletes don’t get discouraged. After last week’s struggles, that became a genuine concern.

“I’ve always thought our kids have done a good job of bouncing back from adversity,” he said. “I don’t see that [right now].”

St. Laurence (14-7, 5-5) trailed only 1-0 through three innings, but the Caravan ripped the game wide open with a four-run fifth. That uprising was sandwiched between two other multiple-run rallies.

Mt. Carmel had several contributors to its noisemaking, most notably Malik Carpenter (three hits, two RBI). Also getting into the act were Scott Kapers (two hits, two RBI), Ako Thomas (two hits, two runs), Josh Stowers (two RBI) and Nick Wheeler (two RBI).

Tommy Farrell and Nick Verta both belted doubles for the Vikings and the former eventually tallied their lone run on Frank Greco’s sacrifice fly.


Greco was the mound man who got roughed up by the Caravan in Saturday’s rematch. Again Mt. Carmel pounded out 14 hits as every one of its starters hit safely.

Carpenter’s grand slam was the most devastating blow unleashed on the Vikings, but six of his teammates delivered a pair of hits and four of those players drove in at least one run.

Amazingly, though, St. Laurence was within 5-3 in the fourth stanza and had men on second and third after scoring all of its runs during that plate appearance. Kevin Aderman singled in two of them and Dan Cummings coaxed a bases-loaded walk from Caravan ace Nelson Munoz, but the rally died out shortly after that.

Munoz, who beat the Vikings 3-2 in the 2014 postseason, rang up eight strikeouts.

            Providence Catholic  7-7

            St. Laurence  2-1

Greco took the hill against another standout pitcher, the Celtics’ Brent Villasenor, last Monday and again held his own as he fanned seven and scattered eight hits over six innings. Providence outhit the Vikings 13-6 on the day, but St. Laurence still managed to strand 10 baserunners.

Two Vikings were left in scoring position in the second inning and all three bags remained filled at the conclusion of the third. The Celtics scored twice in their second at-bat, using a double and sacrifice fly as payoffs.

Lotus said he didn’t believe his guys were intimidated by the defending state champions and declined to cite that as a possible reason for the failure to capitalize more often.

“We didn’t talk much about it because we’ve competed well with them [in the past],” he said. “This game we had a lot of chances and we could have put a lot more pressure on their pitcher if we had scored early.”

Providence strung together a series of hits to up its lead to 4-0 in the fourth and added a three-spot in its final turn at the plate. That late surge ensured that the Vikings’ solo markers in the sixth and seventh remained merely cosmetic.

Jake Tholl’s groundout and a Celtics error brought in St. Laurence’s runs. Sean Burnette's double was the Vikes’ biggest hit.


Both Providence and the Vikings finished with six hits last Tuesday, but four errors ruined Anthony Robles’ pitching performance on St. Laurence’s behalf. Three of those miscues led to a momentum-changing five-run outburst for the Celtics in the third inning.

“He threw the ball really well,” Lotus said of Robles. “[Strikeouts] are definitely not Anthony’s game. He gets ground balls, but when you don’t field them it’s a bad combination.

“All the games [last week] were real similar. We didn’t play real well [at times]. And when you don’t make some plays against good teams it’ll cost you.”

The Vikings didn’t erase their goose egg until the fifth, doing so on Verta’s groundout. A double play killed off a promising third stanza and a total of four players were left aboard in the fourth, sixth and seventh innings.

            Mt. Carmel    10-8

            Brother Rice  0-4

Before silencing St. Laurence, Munoz did the same to the Crusaders. Rice (19-6, 7-3) collected just three hits off him last Monday in a game ended by five innings via the mercy rule.

Jake Ridgway (double), Ryan King and Danny Paluch were the only Crusaders to hit safely against Munoz. Mike Schalasky suffered his first loss in five decisions for Rice after walking six and registering no strikeouts.

Mt. Carmel went up 4-0 in the first inning and erupted for six runs in the fifth.

“They took it to us,” McCarthy said. “We gave them opportunities to succeed and they took advantage of it. We learned a lot about ourselves and what it’s going to take to be an elite team come playoff time [from] the pressure Mt. Carmel put on us and the intensity of the game.

“Munoz kept us in check and kept us off-balance [by throwing] different pitches in different counts and their hitters, one through nine, are very good. You don’t get any breaks in the order. We were very impressed with their team.”


Tuesday offered some promise as the Crusaders plated three runs in the second inning. Ryan Kutt’s double got the rally going and King, Ridgway and Michael Massey all supplied RBI singles.

With Kutt setting down eight Caravan batters on third strikes and walking only one, Rice appeared in reasonably good shape. But an unsightly seven errors ultimately haunted the Crusaders as Mt. Carmel roared back to score all of its runs between the fifth and seventh. Augmenting the Crusaders’ miscues were a dozen Caravan hits.

“They’re a fundamentally sound team, but we didn’t play very well,” McCarthy said.

Andrew Dyke’s sixth-inning single knocked in Rice’s final marker.

            Brother Rice  8-8

            Loyola Academy       4-5

After slipping behind 2-0 in the first 2 ½ innings on Wednesday, the Crusaders were in danger of staying in a funk. In its third plate appearance, however, Rice piled up seven runs as six players had hits and the Ramblers issued three bases-on-balls.

The significant happening, in McCarthy’s opinion, was the single to right field stroked by Colin Shea, the No. 9 man in the order. While not responsible for driving in a run, the hit was notable because Shea is not a regular in the Crusaders’ lineup.

“Here’s a guy who hadn’t played in a week, [but] he comes off the bench to get a hit -- you know that’s not easy to do,” McCarthy said. “That gave everyone a sense of energy and kind of turned things around.

“That’s a guy that’s a senior leader. He goes about his business and doesn’t complain.”

Also part of that rally were Schalasky (two-run single), Dyke (RBI double), King (RBI single), Ridgway (RBI single) and Paluch (RBI fielder’s choice). That was more than enough support for pitcher Jack Guzek, who scattered five hits over six innings, fanned five and walked one.

Schalasky finished with two hits and Massey (single) collected the last RBI.

“We were able to recover after being down early and got a huge win on Wednesday,” McCarthy said. “We felt good [afterward]. We’ll see how big a turning point it is for us.”


At the very least Rice stayed pointed in the right direction on Saturday as it completed a sweep of Loyola behind Schalasky’s seven-strikeout pitching effort and Massey’s 4-for-5 showing that spearheaded an 11-hit attack.

The Crusaders were down 4-3 after three innings but went ahead in the top of the fourth on RBI hits from Massey and Schalasky that followed a Ramblers error and hit batsman. Three more tallies in the sixth put Rice in control as King (RBI single), Schalasky (sacrifice fly), Kutt (double) and Massey (single, stolen base) led the way.

Ridgway (sacrifice fly) provided Rice’s initial run and two hits, a double steal and Loyola error were combined to give the visitors another pair of markers in the third. Four of the Ramblers’ runs came on three homers.


Crossing the line in more ways than one

  • Written by Ken Karrson


Crossing the line in more ways than one

Controversial finish caps male portion of Palos Heights races


By Jeff Vorva

Reporter Editor

            When it came to figuring out which males won the First Midwest Bank Half Marathon and 10K run on Sunday -- well, it required a little work.

What should have been simple tasks turned into ordeals. It wasn’t a matter of who crossed the finish line first in Palos Heights -- that would be too easy.

For the record, Kyle Brady of Warrenville won the half marathon with a time of 1 hour, 11 minutes, 31 seconds while Tinley Park’s Mark Luttrell set the pace in the 10K with his 38:12 clocking. 

But before that happened a couple of bizarre and somewhat surreal events unfolded.

In the 10K race, a man wearing no shirt or bib crossed the finish line first and accepted the winning medal. He said his name was Juan Munoz from Cicero, but when a reporter asked him his age, he replied, “Naaah.’’

Since the man didn’t have a bib or timing chip, he was termed a “bandit” by race officials and denied the victory. Instead, the win was given to the 42-year-old Luttrell.

Race co-founder Mel Diab said it was the first time in the history of the First Midwest Bank event such a thing had occurred.

“All of the bigger events have bandits,” Diab said. “It happens to the best marathons.

“There was a guy from France who participated in the Chicago Marathon who once tried to win prize money when he finished ninth or 10th overall. They have chip timing and they found that he cheated and took a cab.”

Declaring a winner for the half marathon also proved more confusing and complicated than expected.

Because some of the early finishers in the half marathon were passing by the slower 10K runners, the race’s other co-founder, Jeff Prestinario, had some concerns. They turned out to be well-founded.

Despite race organizers’ attempts to instruct the 10K runners to go through a makeshift chute on the left side and the half marathoners to run into one on the right, Brady slipped through the cracks and crossed the finish line with a group of 10K runners. Thus he wasn’t allowed the ceremonial luxury of breaking the tape in victory.

“I saw a guy who looked like a half-marathon type in with the 10K runners, but I didn’t know for sure,” said Prestinario, who also served as the race announcer. “I didn’t want to announce that he was our winner unless I knew for sure.’’

Brady, a standout runner from Wheaton-Warrenville South High School and North Central College, departed right after he completed his race. The individuals in charge of timing said they weren’t certain what Brady’s official time was but guessed it to be 1:11:31, just ahead of Gurnee’s Jared Rothlauf, who was clocked at 1:12:29.

The women’s winners were easier to track as Bolingbrook’s Kristen Heckert, 26, won with a 1:18:36. She was followed across the line by Chicago’s Alyssa Poremba, 23, at 1:18:44. Both are runners for the New Balance Chicago team.

Last year Naperville’s Amanda Mirochna, another New Balance runner, edged Heckert by one second. Mirochna did not defend her title because of an injury, so Heckert’s main competition this year was Poremba.

“We ran together for almost the whole race,” Heckert said. “The last 800 was like, ‘Whatever you got.’ I was lucky enough this time to have enough in the tank to get ahead.”

Kailey Green of Chicago won the 10K event with a 39:05 while Patricia Holland was second at 46:24.


On the road to recovery

  • Written by Ken Karrson




On the road to recovery

Spartans are prosperous in busy week


By Ken Karrson

Sports Editor

Seven games into the 2015 season, some might have thought Oak Lawn was on the road to ruin.

That road has since become one of recovery.

What was overlooked by doubters was the fact that a string of early losses had been administered by some of the Chicagoland finest baseball programs. The Spartans weren’t winning, but the same could be said for many opponents of teams like St. Rita, Lyons Township and Lincoln-Way North.

While it looked as if Oak Lawn had hit rock bottom, in reality it may very well have been the Spartans’ ticket to the top of the South Suburban Conference Red.

Much of the schedule remains to be played, of course, but Oak Lawn has already made its presence known. With three league victories -- including one over cross-town rival Richards -- bagged last week, the Spartans entered the current week with a 5-1 mark in SSC action, leaving them just a half-game behind Red Division leader Shepard.

“You’re questioning your worth two weeks ago, but going 1-6 to start might have been the best thing that could have happened to us,” Oak Lawn coach Bill Gerny said. “[Our guys have] seen the worst of it already. We’re doing better and finally playing as a team.”

The Spartans’ fortunes have improved to the point where Gerny came away disappointed with a split the defending SSC Red champion Bulldogs. After dropping a 7-5 verdict in eight innings to Oak Lawn on Monday, Richards turned the tables one day later as it collected an 8-5 triumph.

“I really felt we should have beaten them twice,” Gerny said. “We kind of snuck out of there with one Monday, then we gave it right back. I hope that game doesn’t [eventually] mean more than just one loss.

“You’re looking at all the [Red] teams that are usually in the mix [of contenders] doing well -- that just puts more pressure on [everybody]. Whoever manages to sweep someone else is going to establish themselves as the front-runner. I hope it’s us.”

The Spartans (8-9, 5-1) positioned themselves nicely for that tag by overcoming an early deficit last Monday and then, after stranding baserunners in the fifth, sixth and seventh stanza, notching the deciding tallies on Liam Blake’s double. The two-bagger followed Joe Dodaro’s hit and Patrick Slattery’s bunt single.

“Our guys are definitely in a comfort zone at the plate right now,” said Gerny, whose club finished with 11 hits. “I think that early schedule is paying off. Teams that we struggled to beat last year, or that we lost to, we’re going toe-to-toe with them.”

Boo Quillin and Ivan Georgelos each drove in an earlier run with a single, Bobby Beard registered an RBI on a groundout and Justin Swatek brought home two teammates with a suicide squeeze in the fourth as Richards was slow to react.

“There was a lack of baseball IQ on that all the way around,” Bulldogs coach Brian Wujcik said.

Richards caught a break when it retired Ryne Melnik on a play at the plate to end Oak Lawn’s fourth-inning at-bat, and when Noel Castro’s sacrifice fly tied the score for the Bulldogs momentum had seemingly begun to shift. But a double play abruptly halted Richards’ plate appearance and it left runners aboard in both the sixth and seventh frames, including one at third.

“We did OK [overall], but [it would help] if we could shore a few things up, [like] the misplayed bunt, passed balls and wild pitches,” Wujcik said. “Every time we make an error, it seems like it’s two runs or better [for the opposition].”

Nick Fritz (single), Ryan Renken (sacrifice fly) and Angelo Smith (single) accounted for the Bulldogs’ other RBI. Oak Lawn’s Matt Witkowski went the distance on the hill to best Nick Mejia.


Richards gained its revenge on Tuesday, although it again was unable to hold an early 4-2 lead. This time, though, it did some late-game damage as Castro (two-run double), Smith (RBI single), Chris Zeschke (double) and Noah Petrusevski (sacrifice fly) helped generate a total of four runs between the fifth and seventh innings.

Smith was also the pitcher of record as he threw a complete game with 11 strikeouts. He now has 33 in his last three starts. His latest batch of strikeouts overrode the six walks and seven hits he surrendered.

“His control wasn’t the best, but he was effectively wild,” Gerny said of Smith. “He kept our hitters guessing and had us off-balance a little bit. [But] I thought we put up a good fight until the end.”

Castro (single) and Smith (bases-loaded walk) also had RBI during Richards’ four-run second stanza, as did Fritz (single) and Ryan Willett (swinging bunt). Dodaro and Quillin both poked two-run singles for the Spartans while John Roberts’ single gave them another marker in the seventh as it came on the heels of a free pass and Slattery’s double.

            Oak Lawn      4

            Tinley Park    0

A Quillin throwing error on Wednesday had given Marist the go-ahead runs in what became a 7-5 win for the RedHawks. He was making a relief appearance at the time, so Gerny wanted to quickly give his third-year varsity player a chance to redeem himself.

And that’s exactly what Quillin did on Thursday as he fanned eight, walked one and scattered four hits in a shutout of the Titans in an SSC crossover. Gerny called it “the most dominating pitching performance we’ve had all year.”

“Coaching a game like that is easy when your pitcher is not making your defense work very hard,” he said. “[Quillin’s] been the kind of player who is dependable. He puts so much effort into it and I know how much he cares.”

Quillin also knocked in Oak Lawn’s second run with a second-inning single. Other RBI men were Roberts in the first, Melnik in the fourth and Slattery in the sixth. The latter’s came on a two-base hit.

            Oak Lawn      10

            Hillcrest          0

            Oak Lawn      8

            Rich Central  1

Neither the Hawks nor Olympians provided much in the way of resistance on Saturday. Ryan Quinn, in fact, held Hillcrest hitless while whiffing six in the SSC crossover.

Rodrigo Zavala did give up five hits to Rich Central, but he also slipped third strikes past seven batters. The Spartans amassed 21 hits over the two games.

Dodaro had a pair in each and four RBI on the day while Blake and Slattery both supplied two hits and two RBI versus the Olympians. Also driving in two runs apiece in the second contest were Georgelos and Melnik. Swatek had a two-run double against the Hawks.

“People that follow our team [probably] don’t realize how good we’re doing in conference because of the tough nonconference schedule we had,” Gerny said. “It makes you feel better about the rest of the season, but if we don’t take care of [future] business the games will be meaningless.”

            Lemont           10

            Richards         3

While the Spartans made progress within the SSC Red, the Bulldogs backslid a bit as they lost to the Indians in a Thursday crossover. A six-run third inning gave Lemont the boost it needed to pull away from Richards.

“We had done the same thing the week before against Lincoln-Way Central, referring to falling behind by a sizable margin. “It was still early. We have to be able to forget it and still attack teams.”

That didn’t happen, however. Save for singles by Mejia and TJ Spyrnal that chased in runs, the Bulldogs’ bats were relatively quiet. Certainly they didn’t match the Indians’ Nick Wisz, who homered twice and totaled five RBI.

Afterward Wujcik spoke with his athletes and asked them if they wanted to be playing ball.

“I said, ‘Some of you don’t seem like you’re enjoying playing,’” Wujcik said. “We don’t celebrate good plays; everybody looks relieved [when they’re made]. Everybody’s career is finite. It’s going to end sometime, but sometimes the younger guys don’t get it.”

Richards (6-7, 3-3) isn’t overstocked with vocal upperclassmen to help bring less-experienced players out of their shells, but one individual who has been stepping forward in that regard is Willett. An all-area performer in football last fall, Willett did not play baseball as a junior because of injury and Wujcik wondered how much he’d be able to provide.

Now he knows.

“What a great addition,” Wujcik said of Willett. “I don’t know where we’d be without him. He’s always encouraging guys in the dugout. He’s the one keeping everybody up.”

            Richards 2

            Andrew 1

And Willett did more than that on Saturday. His diving catch at the warning track saved two runs and was part of a team defensive display Wujcik felt was the ‘Dogs’ best since their season-opener versus Rich Central.

Richards also turned a couple double plays to thwart the Thunderbolts, who stranded runners in each of the first four innings. They tallied their lone run in their initial at-bat.

Renken also drew praise from his coach for hanging tough on the mound. The junior struck out four.

“[Andrew] threatened all day, but Renken just kept pounding the [strike] zone,” Wujcik said. “Every outing that he has had has been a quality outing.”

Mejia finally gave his teammate a lead to protect in the fourth by going deep for a two-run homer. The hit was one of only four Richards mustered.