New Athens and Freeburg happy to share the state tourney experience

News-DemocratJune 5, 2014 

Separated by eight miles of blacktop in southern St. Clair County, longtime Cahokia Conference rivals Freeburg and New Athens will be together in Peoria this weekend at Dozer Park competing in the state baseball tournament.

Many players on the teams have been teammates on travel teams and are good friends.

"That just blows my mind," said New Athens senior pitcher-shortstop Nick Ozier, whose 19-17 club takes on Webber Township (22-17) in a 10 a.m. semifinal game Friday at the Class 1A state tourney. "We're eight miles apart and we're both going up there. It's hard to believe that two towns that are that small and that close are both going to state together.

"I couldn't even sleep last night, I was so excited to get up there."

New Athens is making its first state baseball tourney trip since 1982 and will be trying to nail down its first state baseball championship since 1979.

They still take their baseball seriously in this small town along the Kaskaskia River that has produced more than its share of talent through the decades, including Whitey Herzog Buddy Wirth, Kenny Pour, Kevin Pour, Jimmy Wahlig, Rich Hacker and many, many more.

Wahlig is an assistant coach on the current squad.

Despite losing six of their first seven games this season, including a 15-2 loss to Sparta and 22-5 to Waterloo, the Yellow Jackets are two wins away from a state title.

And darned happy to be there.

"It feels great because 1982 was my dad's senior year and he was on the last team to make it to state," New Athens senior catcher Alec Wade said, "so it's really cool that I get to go to the state tournament as a senior."

When the current juniors and seniors were on a travel team in grade school, Wade's father made a bold prediction that will come true on Friday.

"He told us we'd make it to the state tournament," Wade said. "I don't think anybody believed him then and we certainly didn't believe it at the beginning of this year. It's just been crazy the way we've been playing here at the end of the season."

Most of the current group of New Athens players has been together in one form or another since they were in first grade.

"We don't come from different towns or different junior highs, so we've always been together and that's special," Ozier said.

The big bats in the New Athens lineup include senior first baseman Tyler Meyer (.358, eight doubles, two triples, three homers, 24 RBIs), junior pitcher-shortstop Brandon Contratto (.347, 11 doubles, two triples, 21 RBIs), outfielder Tyler Brandenburger (.337, 17 RBIs), Ozier (.259, 19 RBIs) and Wade (.282, seven doubles, 14 RBIs).

Contratto, expected to get the start on the mound, is 6-3 with a 1.94 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.

"He's been great since he was a freshman and we've trusted him since then," Ozier said. "He does a lot for our team."

"When Contratto's on the mound, we feel like we're going to win," said New Athens coach Scott Wine, who also has Ryan Reuss (4-1, 2.68 ERA and Ozier (3-6, 2.67 ERA) ready for pitching duty if needed. "(Contratto) is just a competitor out there. He's one of those guys that you've got to pry the ball out of his hands to get it away from him.

"He's pitched a lot in pressure situations before and he's been our guy for the last couple years."

Wine grew up in nearby Coulterville and recalled playing against Kansas City Royals high draft pick pitcher Kenny Pour and the '79 New Athens state champs.

"I remember going over there and we played to a tie because it got dark," Wine said. "Pour came in and pitch and that was always my claim to fame, at least I got a hit off him."

Wade said being a tight-knit group has helped handle the ups and downs of a high school season.

"We've got great pitching and it helps that we've been playing together for so long," he said. "We've been lucky to keep the core kids we've had since we've started."

While the current players have heard stories about the glory days of New Athens baseball, they're too busy writing their own chapter.

"All they do is see the pictures on the wall of the state champion team and the runner-up teams," Wine said. "Even the last two years when we only won like 13 games or whatever, they don't lack for confidence. They thought they would end up at the state tournament, also.

"They're not cocky they're just confident."

Making its first state baseball tourney appearance, Webber relies on a highly productive lineup led by Zane Austin (.442, 15 RBIs, 47 runs) and seven other players hitting .309 or higher.

The list includes Lane Moser (.393, one homer, 39 RBIs), Gage Raudenbush (.398, six doubles, two triples, 35 RBIs), Christian Bush (.326, seven doubles, two triples, four homers, 28 RBIs), Mark Knepler (.361, one homer, 26 RBIs) and Jordan Wheeler (.337, five doubles, three homers, 24 RBIs).

A deep and balanced mound staff is led by Logan Ganieany (8-4, 3.12 ERA, 92 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings), Moser (4-0, 1.93 ERA) and Wheeler (5-4, 2.70 ERA).

One of Webber's losses was 10-7 to Marissa, a team New Athens beat 8-7 and 7-4.

While a logistics problem pushed New Athens to a hotel further away from the state tournament in nearby Pekin, don't expect that to lower the excitement level for the Yellow Jackets.

"We feel really special to be the guys to do this," Ozier said. "New Athens has had some pretty good teams since (1982) then and they didn't make it. Everybody's proud of us in New Athens.

"We never thought we'd be here, but here we are."

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

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