CHAMPAIGN – With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, Trent Richardson came to the plate for the St. Thomas More baseball team.
His line drive to left field scored two runs to clinch an 8-5 win against previously undefeated Hoopeston Area in St. Thomas More's home opener earlier this week.
Just another promising sign for Sabers coach Steve Rear.
"We expect a lot of big things from these kids," he said. "We're young, but once they've got their confidence behind them and we start doing the little things, we'll be right there."
The Sabers have three seniors and are leaning on pitching of mostly sophomores and freshmen. Rear said his team benefited from a trip to Disney World during spring break.
"The boys really enjoyed it, and I think it really brought our team together," Rear said. "The bond between the freshmen all the way through the seniors."
St. Thomas More went 2-3 on its break, beating teams from New Jersey and Massachusetts. One of the losses came against a state-ranked team from Alabama.
"Of course we got beat handily in that, but that was also their 20th game," Rear said. "They knew the size of school that we were (1,200 students) when they did the scheduling. We could have played teams of lesser quality out there, but we wanted to play teams that pushed our ability."
The Florida weather and the tough competition helped the Sabers.
"It was a lot of fun. It was the nicest ball diamonds I've ever seen," Joe Parkhill said. "We had good competition down there, and we learned a lot.
"Last year we had seven games scheduled over spring break, and we played two of them. This year, we're practicing every day in 80-degree weather and playing teams from Alabama and Tennessee, just first-class teams."
Rear said his players gained an edge from the experience.
"They get to realize now how much their work ethics have to be to get at that level of play," Rear said. "These boys out here are dedicated to try to do that, and I'm here to help them."
This season is the first time the Sabers have had enough players to field a freshman and sophomore team. It's also the first time Rear has had to make the difficult decision of who stays and who goes.
"Things have been progressing fine for us," he said. "We seem to be getting stronger every year, a little more competitive.
"The school's growing leaps and bounds. It's the first year we've actually been able to have cuts, and nobody likes cuts, but instead of just keeping warm bodies, we're actually able to keep kids that are talented in the sport."
The Sabers finished 12-13 a year ago and lost in the first round of regionals to Fisher after being seeded second. Rear said St. Thomas More is on the verge of its first .500 season or better.
"We're there knocking on the door, and we're ready to turn it," Rear said. "This year we want to win between 15 and 20 games, if that's possible. And there's nothing these boys can't do if they put their minds to it."