Big lefty and strong family ties help Gibault Hawks break new baseball ground

News-DemocratMay 30, 2013 

Zach Neff's father's throwing arm was so strong he once gunned out runners at first base from left field --in slow-pitch softball.

"He's known for his cannon arm," the Gibault junior left-hander said of his father, Rich Neff. "That's the legend that I've heard and grown up with."

But the Neff family's athletic legacy doesn't stop there.

Neff's mother, the former Karen Rieso, made it to state track meet in the hurdles while competing for Columbia High School.

"She was also known for her athleticism," said Zach Neff, whose 23-11 squad will face Shawnee on Friday at the Class 1A state tournament in Peoria.

Raised on a farm near Smithton, Zach Neff honed his pitching arm and impeccable control while throwing to his father inside the family barn.

"I like being on the mound, I feel like I have complete control of the game," said Neff, 7-2 with a 1.90 ERA, "Location is a big part of that and my dad has always preached location. That's all we worked on was hitting spots."

Pitching to his dad, who was seated on a bucket, must have done the trick. Neff has walked only five batters this season while striking out 82 in just 59 innings.

Neff grew up competing against current Gibault teammates Wes Degener and Mitch Meyer in the local select baseball circuit.

"I grew up playing against him and we didn't like him," Degener said with a smile. "He's one of those guys that you hate if you're on the other team, I guess because he's good. He's good and he knows it, but we like him now."

Neff recalled the fierce rivalry.

"Both of our teams were quite competitive," he said. "We always battled it out, every game was close. It's nice playing with them now, you don't have to worry about that rivalry. Our attitudes all mesh and it works well for us."

Neff, who pitches for the St. Louis Pirates travel team and will be joined there by Degener this summer, has already received Division I scholarship offers.

Degener, a hard-hitting shortstop with high-end talent, also could be headed for the Division I ranks.

"I think that they're both guys that could play at the D-1 level," Gibault coach Andy Skaer said. "Zach's gotten some nice offers and Wes's are a little slower to come, but he's definitely a guy that can play at a high level."

Neff's Twitter handle of @LeftyLoosey13 is a clue to his unique personality --and ability to keep his teammates guessing as to what might happen next.

"I like to have fun and keep it loose around here," Neff said. "It gets kind of dull when you don't have anybody to mess with."

Family tradition

Degener comes from a proud baseball family. His father, Tim Degener, was a baseball and basketball standout at Gibault who later was a baseball starter at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

When Gibault beat Jacksonville Routt 4-1 at the SIUE Super-Sectional on Monday, former SIUE coach Bo Collins sat with Degener's father.

"Everything that I know is from him, said Wes Degener, whose older brother, Jake Degener, is a baseball starter for Lindenwood University in Belleville. "My dad taught me how to hit, taught me how to field and he's also taught my brother everything he knows, too."

Degener may be enjoying Gibault's first state baseball tourney trip since 1997 a little more than his teammates.

He was the leading scorer on the basketball team this season, then missed the end of the regular season and all of the postseason with a fractured right ring finger that required surgery and three metal pins to repair.

Gibault won its regional and reached the sectional title game before losing to Madison. All Degener could do was cheer for that team, but now he's ecstatic to be an active participant.

"It killed me," he said of the basketball playoff run. "You don't know how bad I wanted to get out there. You have no idea. ... I was just watching them celebrate and cheering them on. Going to state (in baseball) definitely helps.

"Gibault's never been this far, so it's something very special to all of us."

Degener missed the first eight games of the baseball season and started slow before catching fire at the plate. He's still dealing with swelling in the finger, but also is hitting a team-high .458 with nine doubles, four triples, one homer and 26 RBIs.

"You can tell that it's affected his swing at times this year, but he's put up some really good numbers for us," Skaer said of Degener, who starts in soccer, basketball and baseball for the Hawks. "He is a very gifted natural athlete, probably the best I've had since I've been here. Watching him on the soccer field, on the basketball court, you can just see the raw athleticism and that really translates well for him defensively and offensively."

Meyer also is a three-sport starter at Gibault like Degener. Meyer's father Tim Meyer, was also a baseball and basketball standout at Gibault who later played baseball for McKendree.

The younger Meyer is the spark at the top of the lineup and has scored an incredible 45 runs while keeping pressure on opponents with his speed and aggressive baserunning.

"We have hitters up and down our lineup, that's one thing that's really made us successful," said Meyer, who figured his first state tourney trip might come in soccer or basketball. "This is a great feeling, one of the best feelings I've had in a long time. It's something I've wanted since my freshman year."

Baseball's turn

The bulk of Gibault's athletic success has come in soccer and basketball.

The boys soccer team won three straight state championships from 2006-08 and has been to state eight times. The boys basketball team finished second in 1999, the girls soccer team has a second-place finish at state and the girls volleyball team was fourth in 2012.

The baseball team has reached the final four for the first time in school history. Now the Hawks want just a little bit more.

"My whole high school career we've been talking about how we were going to go to state in soccer, then last year how we were going to go to state in basketball," Degener said. "We have a chance in baseball right now."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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