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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