Potential pro prospects will lead the way for Kahoks, Warriors

News-DemocratMarch 28, 2014 

When preparing for each game senior right-hander Tanner Houck will start this spring, Collinsville Kahoks baseball coach Pete Trapp becomes an informant.

He has to contact the numerous major-league scouts and teams wanting to take a look at the 6-foot-5 senior right-hander, a University of Missouri recruit who routinely hits the low-90 mph range with his deliveries.

Expectations are high for the potential draft pick, but as Trapp said "I think they're justified. He's really good and we'll be successful with him on the mound -- and with the other guys on the mound, too."

Houck is rated among the top pitchers in Illinois by prepbaseballreport.com and also their 12th best overall prospect. Nineteen scouts attended his first start this spring and at least 10 were on hand for his second Wednesday.

He was 3-4 as a junior with a 2.10 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 50 innings after going 4-5 as a sophomore with 67 strikeouts in 58 innings.

Houck, who plays third when not pitching, also hit .297 with eight doubles, two triples, one homer and 19 RBIs.

The Kahoks won their first four games this spring and hope to challenge for the Southwestern Conference title.

"We won't be at full strength until the middle of April," Trapp said. "Slowly we're piecing it together, but we should be pretty good once we get everyone in the right spots. (Being good) on paper's one thing, what you do on the field is another. I think we can be pretty good."

Starting catcher Dylan McEwen (.333, eight RBIs) was 4-for-9 with five RBIs in his first nine at-bats, then underwent surgery Monday and is expected to miss three weeks.

Also returning for the Kahoks is senior center fielder Zack Mathes (.419, four doubles, 10 RBIs), senior pitcher-outfielder and Quincy University recruit Kyle Reeves (.317, seven RBIs; 5-1, 0.62 ERA) and outfielder Aaron Peskar (.254).

"This is great group of kids and that makes a big difference," Trapp said. "They welcome challenges."

Granite City (16-21)

One of the best hitters in Illinois will be in Granite City's lineup as senior catcher and Arkansas recruit Chad Spanberger will be watched throughout the spring by major-league scouts.

The four-year starter is rated the 10th-best player in Illinois by prepbaseballreport.com. He hit .398 as a junior with 11 doubles, five homers and 27 RBIs.

"He's just physically strong," Granite City coach John Moad said. "He's changed his body a little bit and is noticeably stronger. He's just a polished player, too. He's seen everything teams can throw at him, so he's ready to go and excited about it."

The Warriors stunned O'Fallon in the regional semifinals a year ago before losing to Belleville East in the regional title game.

Granite City's top two pitchers from last season return in McKendree recruit Austin Buzick (3-5, 2.82 ERA, 65 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings) and senior Ryan Steen (4-4, 3.71 ERA), with Steen also playing first when he's not pitching.

Junior D.J. Miller moves from second base to center field and will pitch in relief, with Bruce Drennan also expected to contribute at the plate.

"You could win the conference with four losses," predicted Moad. "Everybody has at least one top of the line pitcher that can beat anybody on a given day."

Edwardsville (27-10)

No matter what type of team he has, no matter how many returning starters or how many seniors, veteran Edwardsville coach Tim Funkhouser fields a club every spring that should compete for regional and sectional championships.

The Tigers lost more than a dozen players from a 27-10 squad that lost to Alton in the regional championship in 2013. Among them are Missouri State's Blake Graham and pitcher Cole Hagen, St. Louis University's Drew Curtis, Western Illinois infielder Jordan Heckler and Southwestern Illinois pitcher Zach Sparks.

That's a lot of holes to fill, but the Tigers -- already 3-0 this season --never seem to run out of talent.

Among the top returnees are senior shortstop and four-year varsity player Jacob Fischer (.298, 16 RBIs), hard-hitting junior catcher Brock Weimer (.274, nine RBIs) and senior Kaskaskia College recruit Austin Werner (.317).

Also back are junior outfielders Matt Zielonko (.311, six RBIs) junior pitcher-third baseman Aaron Jackson and infielder Jordan Hovey (.224, 14 RBIs) with Maverick McSparin seeing time at first and designated hitter.

Junior Fahd Shakeel is off to a strong start in the outfield with a homer and four RBIs in seven at-bats and while sophomore shortstop-outfielder Jake Garella is set to return from a back injury. Sophomore infielder-outfielder Collin Clayton is also in the mix.

Among the top pitching hopefuls are senior Alex Meyers (3-2, 3.57 ERA) and juniors Jackson, Chris Robinson, Daniel Lloyd and Matt Owens. Tyler Hosto, Ian Millman and Ty Zeller are among the many pitchers Funkhouser can choose to employ.

Alton (28-10)

The Redbirds had a breakthrough season last spring, knocking off Edwardsville to win the regional. Alton lost a lot to graduation, most notably Indiana University catching recruit Brent Gibbs.

Plenty of excitement remains thanks to a 5-1 start and 6-7, 220-pound junior left-hander Bryan Hudson (6-1, 1.56 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 45 innings). He is 1-0 with 14 strikeouts in eight innings this season.

Hudson (.296, 11 RBIs) is also one of Alton's top hitters along with senior catcher Nick Paulda (.320, three homers, 25 RBIs), senior Clint Cress (hitting .556 this spring with three RBIs) and junior Matt Hopkins (.299, 21 RBIs).

Alton sophomore catcher Aaron Bonnell is hitting .526 (10-for-19) for the season with nine RBIs and Paulda also has driven in nine.

Highland (26-9)

The Bulldogs were hit hard by graduation, but return Eastern Illinois recruit Joe Duncan (.387, seven doubles, three triples, two homers, 37 RBIs, 23 stolen bases). Also returning are senior catcher Blake Hustedde, pitcher-outfielder Grant Geppert (7-2, 3.39 ERA; .269, 17 RBIs) and infielder Nick Balkenbusch (.267, 13 RBIs). Andrew Winning adds speed in the outfield.

Waterloo (24-11)

Senior pitchers Jeremy Rettig (6-3, 1.91 ERA; .276 12 RBIs) and Austin Nunnery (4-4, 2.80 ERA) should help keep Waterloo in games every time they take the mound and the Bulldogs have a good bullpen closer in senior Devin Rice (1-1, 0.95 ERA, seven saves).

Senior catcher Jonny Albers (.259, 15 RBIs) also returns and that strong pitching was evident in a 1-1, 10-inning tie against defending sectional champ Mount Vernon on Wednesday.

Triad (25-11)

Continued postseason success drives the Triad Knights, who lost a huge bat from their lineup once 2013 News-Democrat Player of the Year Keaton Wright headed to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

The Knights (3-0) are doing some rebuilding, but always boast a strong lineup and do return one of the region's top junior hitters in Dalton Johnson (.377, 11 doubles, five homers, 27 RBIs).

Senior outfielder Matt Mersinger is sizzling with hits in eight of his first nine at-bats (.889), including three doubles and six RBIs. Johnson (2-1, 1.68 ERA) and Lucas Gibson figure to see a lot of mound duty along with Dan Ratulowski.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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