While the O'Fallon Panthers knew Blake Deatherage would be one of their top pitchers this spring, they didn't realize how much he would mean to their productive offense as well.
The double-threat senior and McKendree University recruit is 5-0 on the mound and also leading the team in hitting (.486), doubles (tied with four) and RBIs (17).
"That has been a really, really pleasant surprise and certainly a key to our success," said O'Fallon coach Jason Portz, whose 12-1 club is ranked first in the News-Democrat Large-School Baseball Poll. "He's getting a lot of opportunities because he's hitting behind Jeff Hahs -- and that's the kind of bat you want to have in the middle of your order."
Tyler Herbert (3-1, 1.12 ERA) and Deatherage (5-0, 1.73, 31 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings) anchor a deep mound staff that includes Hahs (1-0, 3.06), sophomore Bradley Harrison (2-0, 0.00 ERA) and junior Chris Holba (1-0. 0.00).
"They've been everything that we expected them to be," Portz said of Deatherage and Herbert. "They're strike-throwers and can command four pitches for strikes, so that takes a lot of pressure off your younger players.
"We start four sophomores and a junior and pitching can carry you through some tough times."
The left-handed Harrison, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale recruit as a hitter, is being used in relief and has one save.
Portz said Deatherage has made a big improvement.
"You don't square him up very well. He's able to command his slider a a swing and miss pitch now," Portz said. "He's become a complete pitcher."
Hahs, headed to John A. Logan junior college in Carterville, is hitting .421 with four doubles, one homer and eight RBIs. Harrison (.413, two homers, 13 RBIs) has hit well as expected along with junior third baseman Kyle VanBevern (.472, one homer, 10 RBIs.
VanBevern hits second behind leadoff man Collin Holton (.366, 15 runs, eight RBIs, eight stolen bases).
"We knew what type of ability (Kyle) had and he's just grown and gotten stronger," said Portz, whose team has outscored the opposition 107-33. "He's been our most solid defensive player all year long."
Portz said the lineup's ability to pick each other up when someone is slumping has been a major factor in the strong start.
Dean Gerros (.361, 10 RBIs) and sophomore Camden Bauer have driven in 10 runs each.
The Panthers should find out a lot more about themselves this week with games against Edwardsville at home Tuesday, at Belleville West Thursday and Highland at home Friday.
"It's obviously a big week, but last week was a big week for us as well," said Portz, whose team beat Belleville East (4-3), Granite City (8-6), Civic Memorial (9-1) and Normal West (7-2).
O'Fallon and Edwardsville (11-2, 3-0) are on top of the Southwestern Conference standings
"It's the same as it always is, you can't get too far ahead of yourself in this league," Portz said. "I'm just glad we get a chance to compete here. It's the finest conference south of I-80 for sure and I would put it up there in the top three conferences in the state of Illinois."
O'Fallon lost to Granite City in the regional last spring. The Panthers won't have an easy time getting out this year either since the regional includes conference rivals Collinsville, Belleville East and Belleville West along with Granite City.
"I would put our regional up against anybody," Portz said.
* Edwardsville pitcher Alex Meyers and O'Fallon's Deatherage, who could be facing each other in a key SWC showdown today, lead the St. Louis area with 5-0 records. Meyers had a 0.37 ERA and Deatherage is at 1.73.
Althoff's Tyler Schmid and Freeburg's Kile Bailey each are 4-0.
* Area pitchers apparently want nothing to do with Granite City catcher and Arkansas recruit Chad Spanberger. In 60 plate appearances, he has drawn a St. Louis-area leading 16 walks.
Roxana's Chance Foss is second with 15 walks. Spanberger is hitting ,333 with one homer and 13 RBIs.
* The two strikeout leaders in the St. Louis region both call the metro-east home. Gibault senior lefty and Austin Peay State recruit Zach Neff (3-2, 2.03 ERA) is averaging 13.21 strikeouts a game (39 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings) and Alton sophomore Bryan Hudson (4-1, 1.12 ERA) averages 12.6 per game (45 strikeouts in 25 innings).