Area baseball teams are expected to be strong this spring — if and when the weather allows them to take the field — and some of the best will be those competing at the Class 3A level. Executive sports editor Fred Kroner looks at the prospects for the area’s large-school squads.
The Chargers, under the direction of first-year head coach Ryan Remole, return a plethora of pitching. When last year’s innings were totaled, 179 were by seven current squad members. The team’s aces could be juniors Jeff Lindgren and Anthony Martin, along with senior Austin Johnson. That trio combined for 153 varsity innings a year ago. “It is hoped they will continue to serve as workhorses,” Remole said. Senior Tyler Yoder and sophomore Luke Smith are among the other pitching prospects. Leading the offense are Dylan Grady and Zach Parks, who were two of the top three hitters on last spring’s 22-16 club. Grady was an All-Area first-teamer last spring after batting .391. Sophomore Quin Nottingham could add a potent bat to the lineup. Sophomore Mikey Namoff and senior Payton Kaiser are vying for time behind the plate. Parks has committed to North Park University. Among the juniors drawing interest from colleges are Grady, Lindgren, Martin and Brian Paul. Remole is in his sixth season coaching baseball at Centennial. The first three were as a volunteer varsity assistant and the past two as the freshman head coach.
The Maroons have a strong senior nucleus, featuring a battery that will play in college next school year. Pitcher Alec Altmyer is headed to Illinois State, and catcher Jake Cribbett will join the Lake Land College program. Altmyer and Cribbett, along with senior Lucas Wilson, were first thrust into the varsity lineup as freshmen. Taylor Beard, Michael Manard and Zach Williams are other key seniors back from a 19-18 team. Williams was third on last year’s team in innings pitched. In all, coach John Staab is working with a squad of 47 players. Noteworthy juniors include utility player Connor Mapes, who played every inning last year. Versatile Luke Beesley will help as a pitcher, catcher and first baseman. Zach Dorner earned Big 12 honorable mention accolades last spring, Nick Brunson is seeking his third baseball letter and Jon Foster is a first-time varsity player. Staab believes the sophomore class “may be the most talented from top to bottom during my tenure here.” Last year’s top batsman as a freshman was Jake Snider (.402). Other sophomores who could contribute include Joe Aeilts, Alec Barger, Matt Brown and Phillip Swartz.
The Bulldogs were one of two schools (along with Class 1A Salt Fork) to have two underclassmen selected to last year’s All-Area first team. Outfielder Cully Day recently signed with Parkland College. Junior infielder Joe Kenney has offers, and M-S coach Nic DiFilippo said, “I expect more to come in.” Senior Josh Hubbs is starting his third year as the varsity catcher. He has signed with North Central College in Naperville. Day and Kenney will pitch, as will junior Jack Rettig and seniors Kevin Mumm and Chris Redman. Football standout Bradley Gleason will seek a spot in the outfield, where senior Brandon Sjoken is a two-year regular. Joining the veteran nucleus is sophomore Tom Kenney, whom DiFilippo calls “one of the best sophomores in the state.” He’s a pitcher-outfielder. “Defense will be our strength,” said DiFilippo, who added, “I think we can compete with anyone in our area, but injuries and the weather could change things in a heartbeat.” Junior infielder Andy Livingston will hit in the middle of the order. Grant Gula, who missed last year while in a firefighter cadet program, is another infield candidate. M-S was 16-9 last year.
Third-year head coach Jon Donovan’s team has won 40 games during his first two seasons. Five starters and nine seniors are back from last year’s 19-10 unit. All-Area second-team shortstop Tanner McLain is one of the headliners. He hit .457 last year and has committed to Olivet Nazarene University. He led the area with 39 RBI a year ago. Two college-bound pitchers return: Kyle Flessner (Kankakee Community College) and Kolton Vermillion (Heartland Community College) each had ERAs of 1.32 or below last spring and won six of seven decisions. The Eagles’ fourth college-bound player is second baseman Josh Oliveras (Sauk Valley Community College). Junior pitcher-first baseman Thomas Wolken returns after missing the 2013 season with an ankle injury. “I think our strengths will be a combination of speed on the base paths, power offensively and a sound defense,” Donovan said. “We place a major emphasis on developing our defense early in the season and then seeing what we have offensively.” Other key contributors will be Cody Tatar and Garrett Goodrum in the outfield and Bradley Graybill in the infield.
The Tigers’ first-year head coach, Gene Hoffman, is no stranger to the sport or even the school’s athletes. He has coached American Legion teams and has worked with the majority of his team in previous summers. “We have some talent,” Hoffman said. Two of the Tigers’ leaders are Parkland College recruits Tanner Russell (shortstop) and Conner Gremer (pitcher-first baseman). “We will have to be defensively as sound as we can be in order to be successful,” said Hoffman, who is taking over a program that was 10-18 last spring. “Scoring runs will be at a premium, so we must be above average on defense.” Russell (.410) was last year’s top hitter and also led the team with 27 stolen bases. Gremer missed most of the 2013 season with an injury. Hoffman is looking for seniors Jon Tauber and Kiel King to have breakout seasons. Another senior, Chris Revell, has been solid during early workouts at third base. Gremer, a three-sport athlete for Urbana, is the No. 1 pitcher, and Hoffman is looking for junior Chase Chenoweth to step into the No. 2 role. “The Big 12 is a beast of a conference and, locally, Central and Centennial are extremely tough,” Hoffman said.