Pitching, defense pushing Wesclin during hot streak

News-DemocratApril 21, 2014 

Wesclin High veteran baseball coach John Groennert likes to break his team's season into one-third increments.

He groups things by the early nonconference schedule. then Cahokia Conference play and playoffs.

"We don't really worry about wins and losses early and we play a tough schedule, so that all helps," said Groennert, whose Warriors (12-5) have won eight in a row and nine of their last 10 games following a 10-3 victory Monday over Lebanon. "We didn't get off to the greatest start in the world, but things have turned around for us."

Like many Groennert clubs, the Warriors' success revolves around pitching and defense.

"That's what we push and in high school baseball, that's what wins," Groennert said. "If you've got guys that can throw strikes and make routine plays you can win games."

There have been several memorable wins already this season.

One was a 3-2 victory over Mascoutah in the second game of a March 29 doubleheader, one of only two losses for Mascoutah (14-2) this season.

Another was a 1-0, nine-inning Cahokia Conference victory over Freeburg on April 8 and a 3-2 conference win over Carlyle on April 10.

While senior center fielder and Southern Illinois University Carbondale recruit Michael Klein still hasn't recovered fully from a leg injury that kept him out of basketball, he's still doing some heavy damage at the plate.

Klein is hitting .543 with six double and 11 RBIs in limited action.

"He's looked real good, but he's at about 75 percent," Groennert said. "When he's in there he's been really good for us. We're just trying to coax him through the season and get him to the end."

Wesclin's other top offensive weapons have been Brady Kunz (.377, seven RBIs), Jared Timmermann (.359, seven RBIs), Brendan Bernhardt (.345, 11 RBIs) and Kyle Eversgerd (.321, four doubles, 12 RBIs).

"A lot of times we have four sophomores in the lineup and it took a little while to show those sophomores that they belong," Groennert said. "They gained confidence and that's what it takes"

That group includes Jarad Steenbergen, third baseman-pitcher Timmermann, Darrell Combs and designated hitter Jordan Groennert, the coach's son.

John Groennert has been coaching the majority of the sophomores since they were in second grade.

While the Warriors don't possess overpowering pitching, nearly everyone they send to the mound throws strikes.

The staff has been led by Eversgerd (2-1, 0.26 ERA), Timmermann (2-0, 0.66 ERA), Ryan Meddows, junior Dylan Weh 3-0, 0.66 ERA, 22 strikeouts in 21.1 innings) and junior Kenny Hagarty (2-1, 3.42 ERA). Blake Hilmes has two saves and a 1.11 ERA.

"I think it starts with defense and we have been playing really great defense during this run," Groennert said. "I don't think we've had a game recently where we committed more than one error."

While Carlyle (13-3, 2-2) and Freeburg (12-5, 3-2) got a lot of the preseason attention in the Cahokia Conference's Mississippi Division because of their returning experience, Wesclin leads the conference with a 4-0 mark in league play. Columbia (11-4, 3-1) is right in the mix, too.

Groennert said it's far too early to think it will stay that way.

"When you have Carlyle and Freeburg and Columbia, those are all really good teams and they're just solid," he said. "Carlyle's got so much pitching, plus you're going to beat up on each other. It's just a really good, solid conference again."

Pitching gem

O'Fallon junior Chris Holba once pitched and played shortstop in the 2009 Little League World Series for Team Europe representing Germany, hitting a grand slam that landed him a spot on ESPN's Top 10 segment.

Because of his family's military ties, he's played in several geographical spots but it's doubtful he ever pitched a game better than his 1-0 no-hitter Friday against Highland.

"I think it's even more of an accomplishment against a team like Highland," O'Fallon coach Jason Portz said, noting Highland's high rate of bunts that keep constant pressure on a defense. "Highland did try to execute a couple bunts for hits, they were crowding the plate a little bit and taking pitches."

The game was scoreless until the sixth, when O'Fallon loaded the bases after a leadoff double by Jeff Hahs. Sophomore Camden Bauer's sacrifice fly to center chased home the only run.

O'Fallon got several big defensive plays, some of the best from third baseman Kyle VanBevern and second baseman Collin Holton.

However, Holba was the man in charge on the mound.

"Chris was really in control of the game, there was not a lot of solid contact," Portz said. "Two balls made it out of the infield and everything else was a ground ball or a strikeout."

Holba, who had a brother that pitched at Notre Dame, walked only one and struck out five. He is 2-0 and has allowed only two hits and no earned runs in 17 innings.

"He's a kid that's come a long way for us," Portz said, noting that Holba began the season as a No. 5 starter and top reliever.

"Chris is moving up the chain a little bit because of some of the success he's had. I've been impressed with him."

Holba also held Normal West to one hit in six innings in another victory.

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

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