2014 Baseball Season Preview

  • Written by Ken Karson


2013 Record: 16-14.
Head coach: Bill Gerny.
Assistant coaches: Chris Bohanek, Nick Chigas, Gary Gudino.
• Who’s gone: Bob Kametas, P/3B; Chris Rafacz, OF; Marcin Krzysiak, 1B; Billy Thome, C; Lee Baxa, P.
• Who’s back: Matt Dunne, 3B/P, Sr. (.361; 2.81 ERA); Mitch Swatek, 1B, P, Sr. (2.51 ERA; .382 in summer); Kevin Zurek, 2B, Sr. (.333); Brandon Quillin, SS/P, Jr. (.400 in summer); Matt Witkowski, OF/P, Jr. (1-0, 1.17 ERA in summer); Jake Slusinski, OF, Sr.
• Who’s new: Joe Dodaro, 1B/3B, Jr. (.364, 16 RBI for sophomore team); Ryne Melnik, OF, Jr. (.359, 17 RBI for sophomore team); John Roberts, C, So.; Justin Swatek, INF/OF/P, So.
• Outlook: Bill Gerny enjoyed quite the varsity-coaching debut, as the Spartans rewarded him with a somewhat unexpected South Suburban Conference Red title. Oak Lawn’s 2013 edition could not be classified as a dominant club, but it certainly was a resilient one as it beat back challenges from several teams to claim the top divisional spot.
The Spartans struggled somewhat against their nonconference competition last spring, but instead of lightening the load, Gerny plans to run his squad through an even stiffer gauntlet in 2014, one featuring St. Rita, St. Laurence, Lyons Township, Maine South, Sandburg, Brother Rice, De La Salle and three of the four Lincoln-Way schools among the formidable foes. Clearly, Gerny understands the value of testing Oak Lawn early and often in order to prepare it for another shot at SSC Red supremacy and perhaps some greater postseason success.
He’s placing these hurdles in front of his guys even though the Spartans have some rebuilding to do. It’s not so much quantity as quality that must be replaced — conference Player of the Year Bob Kametas, Oak Lawn’s unquestioned on-field leader a season ago, and all-conference selection Marcin Krzysiak are two major graduation-induced losses. Kametas will be missed both as a pitcher and everyday player, but the Spartans still have the makings of a solid staff in Kametas’ absence.

Matt Dunne and Mitch Swatek bring both good arms and smarts to the hill. Each ranks among the top 25 students in Oak Lawn’s senior class and posted an impressive ACT score, and as athletes Dunne and Swatek produced especially solid summer campaigns — the former upped his spring batting average by 80 points, to .441, while Swatek lowered his earned-run average by 1.7 points from one season to the next. Summer was also a positive experience for returning infielders Kevin Zurek (49-point increase in average) and Brandon Quillin — whose late-spring homer had helped the Spartans defeat Tinley Park in a pivotal conference encounter — and pitcher Matt Witkowski. Outfielder Jake Slusinski is being counted on to contribute regularly with his speed and strong defense.
Adding juice to the attack should be the junior duo of Joe Dodaro and Ryne Melnik, who represented the heart of the sophomore-team order last spring. Swatek’s brother, Justin, and John Roberts are two sophomores on whom Gerny is high. Roberts, who was recently named to the IHSA Student Leadership team, received one varsity start behind the dish as a freshman.
One thing Oak Lawn will have to do in the early portion of its schedule is adjust to life on the road. The harsh winter conditions that blanketed the area during January and February delayed completion of a new baseball diamond, but Gerny is confident his athletes will adjust to the situation with little difficulty.
• Coach’s comments: “I have the expectation that our players will rise to the challenges of 2014. We lost a great group of players from last year who were also great students and people, [but] I truly believe that we have the right players in place for success in 2014.
“As a group, these players have put in the work to show that they are very focused on winning a conference championship and want to prove that they can match up with the difficult opponents [we’ll see both] in and out of conference.” — Gerny.



2013 Record: 16-18.
Head coach: Frank DiFoggio.
Assistant coach: Jim Benes.
• Who’s gone: Jeremy Dryier, P/INF; Matt Scott, INF; Nick Medlicott, P/1B; Adam Samad, INF; Christian Araiza, OF; Matt Schmeski, C/OF/P; Jack Garetto, P/INF.
• Who’s back: Bobby Peterka, C/OF, Jr. (.368, 9 RBI, 9 walks, 4 doubles); Brendan Hermann, OF/1B/P, Sr. (.270, 17 RBI, 7 walks; 14 Ks in 11 IP); Mark Albrecht, 2B, Jr. (11 walks, 11 RBI, 4 doubles, .855 fielding pct.); Jake Hart, OF/DH/P, Sr. (9 RBI); Kevin Knoerzer, OF/P, Sr. (20 runs, 6 walks); Eric Horbach, SS/P, Jr. (.870 fielding pct.).
• Who’s new: Adam Gregory, 1B/P, Jr.; Brett Smith, P/3B/OF, Jr.; Kevin Carmody, OF, So.
• Outlook: At first glance, the Astros’ 2013 season appears to have been rather mediocre, but what can’t be overlooked is the early hole they dug and from which they had to extricate themselves. Shepard dropped nine of its first 12 decisions, a skid that included a nightmarish collapse against South Suburban Conference Red rival Reavis. In that particular game, the Astros were two outs away from a slaughter-rule triumph before squandering a 10-0 lead and getting tagged with a stunning 15-14 setback.
The psychological impact of that defeat, coupled with the loss of starting second baseman Eric Horbach to a season-ending injury in the seventh game and the absence of its No. 2 pitcher, could have easily left Shepard in tatters. But longtime baseball boss Frank DiFoggio kept his athletes on an even keel emotionally and, eventually, the Astros recovered — so much so, in fact, that they found themselves tied for the divisional lead late in the year before settling for third place.
So in some ways, DiFoggio, who’s entering his 17th season, performed one of his finest coaching jobs to date. Now, he’ll pretty much have to duplicate that feat simply because Shepard said farewell to 10 seniors, several of whom are playing college ball this spring. Adding to the latest challenge is that little exists in the way of proven offense, meaning that, unless a few heretofore unknowns suddenly emerge in a big way, the Astros will have to scratch and claw for runs.
That doesn’t mean DiFoggio is conceding anything, however. First off, junior catcher Bobby Peterka and senior outfielder Brendan Hermann exhibited some proficiency with the sticks last year, and junior Mark Albrecht did likewise two seasons ago. DiFoggio believes Albrecht is fully capable of rediscovering his 2012 form, when he batted nearly .300, and leaving a disappointing 2013 well behind him. Also in the mix are seniors Jake Hart — who underwent surgery as a freshman and is healthier than at any time since then — and Kevin Knoerzer, plus the returning Horbach, who is expected to move to shortstop.
Knoerzer, Horbach, Albrecht and Peterka are all above-average fielders, which is obviously good news for the defense, while Hermann is Shepard’s most tested hurler. A wild card is junior Brett Smith, whose fastball has been clocked in the mid-to-upper 80s. If the youngster is able to pitch with control, DiFoggio pegs him as a potential eight-game winner. Junior Adam Gregory and speedy sophomore Kevin Carmody are two other newcomers who should have some sort of impact on the Astros’ fortunes.
DiFoggio has circled a few contests on the schedule as especially important ones, several of which occur in April. If Shepard can fare well in matchups with Reavis, Oak Forest and Richards — which encompass a total of five games — DiFoggio thinks his club “will have a very good year and compete for the conference title.”
• Coach’s comments: “The Shepard Astros will be in rebuild mode this upcoming year, [but] our junior class, led by catcher Bobby Peterka, is extremely talented. Our pitching staff will be inexperienced, but they are all hard throwers.
“Our strengths will be our defense up the middle and our team speed, as almost the entire lineup can run. Our keys to success will be how quickly the young staff and position players can rise to the varsity level with their mental toughness, fundamental execution and personal discipline within their plans of attack.” — DiFoggio.



2013 Record: 14-17.
Head coach: Tom Fabrizio.
Assistant coaches: John LaRoy, Matt Mueller, Don Pirkle.
• Who’s gone: Cody Bohanek, INF/P; Bryan Polak, OF; Ian Woodworth, P; Jack Gainer, INF/P; Luke Daniels, C.
• Who’s back: Blake Bieniek, P/OF, Sr. (20 RBI); Ryan Kairis, OF/P, Jr. (.377; 2.30 ERA); Matt McKenzie, P, Sr.; Robert Hovey, P, Sr.; Barrett Callaghan, INF, Sr.; Kyle Barrett, OF/INF/P, Sr.
• Who’s new: Pat Meehan, INF/P, Jr.; Eric Hanson, C, Jr.; Mike Trbovic, 1B/P, Jr.
• Outlook: There were no late-season heroics in store for the RedHawks last spring. A spotty regular campaign, made so in large part by weather-induced interruptions and shifting game sites, prevented Marist from ever getting on a serious roll in 2013. That was what had salvaged a sub-par 2012 season, which the RedHawks extended by five games after advancing all the way to a Class 4A supersectional.
One thing missing from Marist’s arsenal a year ago was a stopper on the hill. The RedHawks have often had such an individual in their midst, most recently Mike Hearne, who now attends Notre Dame. It remains to be seen whether fifth-year coach Tom Fabrizio can unearth someone of that nature this time around, but he was fortunate enough to get an early look at some pitching prospects — while most local baseball programs were forced to remain on the sidelines because of winter’s lingering effects, Marist traveled to Arizona during spring break. There, it managed to get seven games under its belt, which was definitely an advantage for a squad looking to solidify a few areas left shaky by graduation.
Seen as the RedHawks’ mound mainstays are the trio of Blake Bieniek, Matt McKenzie and Ryan Kairis. The latter did not begin 2013 with the varsity squad, but quickly proved worthy of prime time upon arrival as Kairis gave Marist a lift both as a hurler and hitter. McKenzie, a southpaw like Kairis, has already committed to St. Xavier University, while Bieniek provides the RedHawks with an experienced righty. Seniors Robert Hovey and Frank Scumaci are two other staff veterans.
Along with Kairis and Bieniek, senior infielder Barrett Callaghan will be a key member of the batting order. Minus boppers such as Cody Bohanek (University of Illinois-Chicago), Bryan Polak (St. Xavier), Jack Gainer (Quincy University) and Luke Daniels (Triton College), Marist may find runs a bit more difficult to come by, although that didn’t seem to be much of a problem in the warmer climes of Arizona. A RedHawks asset could be team speed — they swiped 15 bases in Arizona and had only one runner thrown out, a promising occurrence for any club seeking to manufacture scores.
Juniors Pat Meehan and Eric Hanson, both of whom were solid performers last summer, are two youngsters expected to supply measurable input. Also stepping forward at various times during the western trip were Tyler Haizel, Mike Trbovic, Tommy Finwall and John Carmody.
As always, the East Suburban Catholic Conference will be filled with land mines, but Fabrizio isn’t limiting the RedHawks’ tests to league play. Once again, Marist will also confront some tough customers in nonconference affairs, including Sandburg, St. Rita, Mt. Carmel, Providence Catholic and Andrean (Ind.). Thus, it should be adequately prepared for whatever awaits it in the state tournament.
• Coach’s comments: “We will have a good mix of guys with valuable experience at the varsity level and some talented newcomers. Our defense will have to be our strength, as we have pitchers who will throw strikes but won’t strike out a lot of people.
“We hope to compete at the top of the ESCC and we usually play our best baseball toward the end of the season.” — Fabrizio.



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