By Blake Schnitker
Crimsons Reload For 2015 Baseball Season
Entering his second year at the helm of Jacksonville High School’s baseball program, head coach Cory Bunner finds himself with a handful of new challenges, new scenarios, and new faces. Having lost 7 senior starters to graduation in 2014 – six of which went on to play college baseball while the other earned a football scholarship – Bunner will run out a newly-renovated Crimsons squad onto the diamond this spring, one that hopes to prove that their youth is a strength rather than a hindrance.
“Aside from a few guys that we have returning, we lost pretty much everybody with the graduation of a great group of seniors that played three or four years of varsity baseball,” said Coach Bunner, “so there’s some big shoes to fill, but we’ve got some guys who will step in and fill some spots that haven’t been open in four or five years.”
For some perspective on what the Crimsons lost to graduation, let’s take a look at last year’s offensive and defensive statistics. Altogether, last year’s seniors combined for 79 percent of all varsity hits, 84 percent of the RBIs, and 75 percent of the runs scored during the 2014 season. Defensively – specifically pitching – the seniors accounted for 199.1 of the 250.1 total innings pitched (see why baseball nerds love numbers so much?).
This year, with only two seniors – Connor Stremlau and Alex Tabeek – listed on the roster, the Crimsons will rely on a solid group of juniors and sophomores to make up for their lack of experience. Already in the young season however, Stremlau has shown his capacity to lead, going 2-3 with 3 RBIs in Jacksonville’s season opening win over Macomb.
“Connor [Stremlau] and Adam [Hillis] are the two guys we return with the most experience,” said Bunner, “so we’ll look for both of them, especially Stremlau since he’s a senior, to fill some of the leadership roles.”
But youth doesn’t always equal inexperience. Such is the case for sophomores Adam Hillis and Klay Wood, both of whom saw significant varsity playing time last year as freshmen. Hillis, the Crimsons’ number one pitching option this Spring, is not unfamiliar with the mound, having thrown 42 innings for last year’s varsity staff while registering 32 strikeouts to just 8 walks. But Hillis’ aptitude is not limited to the hill. He also hit .262 with 4 home runs and 19 RBIs in 103 varsity at-bats as a freshman.
Wood, whose older brother Kody roamed the JHS outfield last year, will look to fill in as the Crimsons’ shortstop. While Wood spent most of last spring at the JV level, he also notched 9 hits, 11 runs, and 5 RBI’s in 38 varsity plate appearances as a freshman. Looking to improve on their impressive freshman campaigns, Hillis and Wood – traveling teammates since age 9 – hope to provide confidence and experience to an otherwise untested group.
“Both of those guys [Hillis and Wood] – although only sophomores – you wouldn’t think of them as sophomores by watching them play,” Bunner said of the two underclassmen, “Klay and Adam will be two guys in the middle of our lineup that we’ll look to as far as driving in runs. They’ve played a lot of baseball…a lot of good baseball, and they’ve handled it well, so we’re going to lean on them quite a bit this year.”
Aside from sophomores Hillis and Wood, Coach Bunner and the Crimsons will look for contributions from eight returning juniors. While Noah Pickens and CJ Wright will man the outfield positions alongside the senior Stremlau, other juniors Braxton Criss and Drew Haggerty will fill significant roles at the corner infield positions.
“We’ve got a big junior class coming up that saw some quality time at the JV level last year, but it’s going to be a different ball game this year,” said Bunner of the juniors, “it’s going to take some time to adjust to the speed of varsity baseball and I’ll think they’ll be able to do that, we just hope that comes sooner rather than later.”
Rockets Look to Uphold Routt Baseball’s Tradition of Winning
2014: Last year’s Rockets squad finished with an overall record of 17-12 and a WIVC North record of 6-2. One of Routt’s biggest strengths in the 2014 season was their ability to win at home, finishing with an 11-3 mark in games played at Alumni Field. Road games, however, were a different story, as 8 of Routt’s 12 losses came when they were the visiting team. The Rockets finished the regular season strong, winning 5 of their last 7 before entering regionals. In their opening postseason game versus Edinburg, the Rockets came out on top after 9 innings of play to win by a score of 6-2. Routt’s post-season hopes came to an end in the regional championship, losing a nail-biting game to Pawnee High School by a final of 4-3.
LOST TO GRADUATION: While last year’s team saw significant contributions from a number of underclassmen, the bulk of Routt’s offense and defense – especially in terms of pitching – came from their four senior starters: Ben Whalen, Justin Ketchum, Dylan Jones, and Ryan Bickhaus. As for the pitching, Jones led the team with a 2.19 ERA over 89.1 innings pitched last year, winning 7 games and striking out 131 batters. Bickhaus and Whalen led the team in hits with 39 and 37, respectively, while their respective batting averages of .394 and .381 were also good for top spots in 2014. And while Ketchum’s .347 average finished just shy of Bickhaus and Whalen, his 28 RBIs made him the Rockets leading run producer.
“We had a small nucleus of only four seniors last year, most of whom had played on varsity since sophomore year,” said Routt’s head coach Bobby Lonergan of last year’s seniors, “they were a solid group with a good pitching staff … all great leaders for our team.”
RETURNING: Although the majority of last year’s contributions came by way the four seniors, Routt saw steady improvement from their younger starters as the season progressed. Adam Birdsell, now in his senior season, is among the Rockets’ top returners from a year ago, as he finished his junior campaign with a .360 batting average on 36 hits, 28 runs and 17 RBIs. Alongside Birdsell are seniors Keegan Hoots and Joe Nix, two multi-sport athletes whom Routt will look towards for leadership, as each saw considerable playing time last year as juniors. As far as returning underclassmen, sophomore Jack Whalen – younger brother of Ben Whalen – found himself in the starting lineup for nearly every varsity game as a freshman, tallying 19 hits and 11 runs scored over 28 games while also driving in 13 runs.
“We’re actually somewhat of an inexperienced group this year as far as pitching,” Lonergan said, “but after we figure out who can throw and who can throw well, I think we’ll see progression as the season goes on.”
NEWCOMERS: One of Routt’s biggest advantages entering each year is that head coach Bobby Lonergan also doubles as the head baseball coach of Our Saviors Junior High team, meaning he is already quite familiar with each year’s incoming freshman. The good news for the Rockets: while this year’s team may be underclassmen-dependent, the newly arrived freshmen are a rather athletic group. Among this class of 2018 is outfielder/pitcher Hunter Chumley, who also made substantial contributions to Routt’s football and basketball teams over the fall and winter season. In the Rockets’ 10-0 season opening win over Greenfield, Chumley threw 3 scoreless innings while going 2-4 at the plate with a pair of singles, an RBI and a run scored.
“The great part about being involved with the junior high team is that, having coached most of the players since 7th grade, I know them pretty intimately as far their abilities go,” Lonergan said of the incoming freshmen, “Hunter Chumley was the ace of our junior high team last year, so I expect him to step in and fill some of the void we have in terms of pitching.”
OVERALL OUTLOOK: Throughout the past decade or so, Routt Catholic High School has built a baseball tradition that rivals some of the best Class 1A programs in the state. This recent uptrend is due, in large part, to the work of Bobby Lonergan, who now enters his 9th year as the Rockets’ head coach. Over the course of those 9 seasons, Routt has a total record of 178-63 – equaling a win-percentage of 73.9 percent – with last year being the only season in which Routt failed to top 20 victories. In the spring of 2008, the Rockets home the school’s first and only state championship in IHSA Class 1A baseball and a final record of 25-4. Aside from the state championship, Routt has won 4 sectional titles, and 7 out of 9 regional championships since 2007. This standard of high-quality baseball is something that this year’s Rockets are well aware of, considering that most of them witnessed this success growing up through elementary and junior high.
“Hopefully those former teams have set the bar,” said Lonergan of the past success, “it’s a high bar, but aspirations to be successful in athletics can be reached if you work hard at it, and these kids know that. We’re a little bit removed from the 2008 state championship now, but all of our players are aware of it, and a good majority of them, even the freshman, have experienced success.
“They understand the tradition that we’ve set forth here in terms of baseball, so I expect them to rise to a certain level. It’s always competitive in our conference, but if we come out and pitch well and get some timely hitting, I look for us to contend. I like our chances.”
JHS Softball 2015
With a balanced roster of experienced veterans and fresh-faced newcomers, Jacksonville High School’s softball team – under the tutelage of first-year head coach Bob Myers – looks to build off of a solid 18-16 record from a year ago. However, in order to do so, they will have to replace several key contributors that were lost to graduation at the end of the 2014 season.
Included among those lost to graduation is Ashlyn Myers, the eldest daughter of Coach Myers and owner of nearly every softball record in school history. Starring as the ace of the Lady Crimsons’ pitching staff, Ashlyn racked up 194 strikeouts over 156 innings, finishing the year with a 17-8 record. At the plate, Myers hit for an astounding .555 average, notching 13 doubles, 9 home runs and 43 runs batted in over just 34 games played. Myers’ backstop for most of the year, fellow senior Rachel Hall, was also lost to graduation, leaving a void at the catcher position. Along with Myers and Hall, Jacksonville will also be without fellow graduates Tiffanie Lacy and Cassi Crow, who together combined for 33 RBIs and 29 runs scored last spring.
“Ashlyn was a four year varsity starter who did the majority of pitching last year, so it’s a big replacement losing her,” said Coach Myers, “obviously we’re not going to be able to replace her with one player, but hopefully two or three of the girls can step up.”
While it may seem as if Jacksonville is entering the new season with a rather depleted roster, the truth is that they actually return more starters than they lost. The Crimsons’ roster currently lists 6 seniors entering the 2015 season, with two of the six returning as starters from last year’s platoon. Appearing in a total of 63 varsity games between her freshman and junior year, Sydney Lovekamp returns for her senior year with considerable softball experience. Alongside Lovekamp is fellow senior Nickole Strubbe, whom the Crimsons will to offensive strength to the middle of their lineup after a junior season in which she batter .411 with 39 hits and 26 RBIs over 34 games played.
“Sydney [Lovekamp] has been around for the past few years, so she knows what to expect at the varsity level, and defensively she’ll be able to help us a lot,” Myers said, “and with Nickole [Strubbe], she will be our main run-producer at the plate, very consistent player who will hit third or fourth in our lineup.”
As far as this year’s class of juniors, two players to watch will be Bretlyn Crow and Olivia Kaufmann. Crow, who played saw very little time last year at the varsity level, is capable of playing a number of defensive positions thanks to her strong grasp on fundamental play. As for Kaufmann, the versatile hoopster has hung up her sneakers for the winter, replacing them with softball spikes as she returns as Jacksonville’s All-Conference starting shortstop.
“Bretlyn [Crow] will likely end up in centerfield or one of the corner outfield spots, she’s shown a tremendous amount of hustle and has quickly picked up the proper defensive techniques,” Myers said, “Olivia [Kaufmann] is our staple at shortstop, great footwork, hits for high average and power, so she sets the tone from top to bottom in our lineup.”
Despite several returning juniors and seniors, this year’s team will take on a rather juvenescent character, as a number of underclassmen enter the season with already highly developed skill sets. One such player is freshman Ragen Myers, sister of Ashlyn and daughter of Coach Myers, who will look to fill the void left behind by big sister. Having played for her dad for most of her softball career, whether on local league teams or in traveling tournaments, Myers enters the 2015 season with more quality playing experience than one typically finds in a freshman ballplayer.
“Hopefully Ragen will follow the same path that Ashlyn took,” said Coach Myers of his daughter, “she’s probably a little more developed than Ashlyn was as a freshman, she’s got some pop in her bat, with the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and hit for extra bases.”
With conference-foe Chatham Glenwood returning as last year’s Class 3A state champions, the Crimsons will have their hands full when it comes to CS8 play. But with a solid mix of veterans and newcomers, Jacksonville looks to compete with the best of them. As far as the message and expectations, Coach Myers says the emphasis this year will be on fundamentals and versatility.
“That’s kind of what we’re striving for in practice,” said Myers, “we don’t want to pigeonhole anybody in a certain position, we want to make sure they understand the fundamentals and the techniques to properly play the game, and then they can move around pretty much anywhere.”
No Seniors, No Problem: Routt Softball Remains Confident With Youth-Oriented Roster
2014: When it comes to high school sports, particularly at a school the size of Routt, the expectations of every season hinges on the ability to extract quality play out of a small quantity of players. And for the Lady Rockets of Routt Catholic High School, the story is no different.
Entering the 2015 season, the Lady Rockets do not list a single senior on their roster. Add that to the fact that only three of their players are members of the junior class – one of which is returning to the sport after taking two years off – and you can see that the outcome of Routt’s season will depend, in large part, on the play of their underclassmen. Yet despite having only three upperclassmen, head coach Jamie Martin expects his team to compete.
“I’m sure the competition will be tough but we’d like to do well in the conference,” said Martin, “last year we actually had three conference wins, which was the first time we had won a conference game in years, but the goal is to do even better than that this year.”
The good news for Routt – having relied heavily on underclassmen in recent years – is that many of the players that do return this year, specifically their 7 sophomores, already have a full year of varsity experience under their belt. Not only were most of these players thrown into the varsity lineup as freshman, but many of them compete on traveling teams during the course of the offseason, gaining valuable playing time against high quality competition.
Among the strong group of returning sophomores are Kaitlin Schulte and Cassidy Abbott, who will round out the top of Routt’s pitching staff this spring. While Abbott missed the majority of last year’s season due to injury, Schulte spent most of her freshman year as the Rocket’s only true ace.