While the top three teams in the News-Democrat High School Baseball rankings Monday all reside in the Southwestern Conference, another league team won seven of its first eight games and is turning some heads.
That would be the Collinsville Kahoks, a club that took a huge hit in the pitching department because of a departing senior class that included Missouri recruit and Toronto Blue Jays draftee Tanner Houck along with pitchers Kyle Reeves (Quincy), Zack Mathes (Southwestern Illinois College) and Aaron Peskar.
That group combined for 16 wins last season as well as the bulk of the innings in important games, leaving a fairly large question mark on the mound this season for the Kahoks.
“We actually did return some experience, we just didn’t return experience on the mound,” Collinsville coach Pete Trapp said. “We’re not going to wow you, but we go out there and do a lot of things right. They’re all good kids and they work hard and take pride in everything that they do.
“I can’t really say I’m shocked or surprised.”
Collinsville’s only defeat before Mondat was a 4-2 SWC loss last week to second-ranked O’Fallon. The scrappy Kahoks were outhit 11-7 in that one against O’Fallon lefty Bradley Harrison, but also carried an early lead.
“This conference is a bear, it doesn’t matter who it is,” Trapp said when asked how he thinks the Kahoks will react against other league opponents. “They’re all tough. All the teams are very well coached and have a lot of good players, but that’s what makes it fun.”
Winning is fun, too. Among the Kahoks’ early victories are wins over Althoff, Belleville West, Mascoutah and Wheaton Warrenville South along with a doubleheader sweep of small-school ranked Central.
The Kahoks lost 9-2 to Civic Memorial on Monday.
Senior Pitcher Justin Anson (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) transferred in from Metro-East Lutheran as a junior and is quickly developing into a fairly consistent performer. Anson is 4-0 through five appearances, including two starts, striking out 11 in 13 2/3 innings.
“He’s still learning the game, but he’s a very intelligent kid,” Trapp said. “He’s been coachable but he’s still got a lot of room to grow. He’s got good movement on his pitches. He’s not going to overpower people. but he can ring up a strikeout whenever he needs to.”
Mathew Cook (1-1, 3.62 ERA) and Mitch Reising (1-0, 0.84) have also turned in quality mound outings for the Kahoks.
“As long as we can continue to make our improvements day-in and day-out, that’s the most important part,” Trapp said. “Without having a flat-out No. 1 (ace) it makes it tough, but at the same time we have a lot of good guys we can put out there on the mound and do what we ask them to do.”
A tough junior season that saw him undergo surgery to remove a tumor and then deal with a hand injury is quickly being put in the rear-view mirror by Collinsville senior catcher Dylan McEwen.
McEwen began Monday hitting .500 with two doubles, tied for the team lead with six RBIs.
“Last year he had a real good first three games and had to have surgery done,” Trapp said. “
That knocked him out for quiet a while, then he had the hand injury. Last year he’d get into a groove and something would come up, but this year he’s off to a great start.”
Also off to strong starts are senior outfielder Aaron Ortiz (.474, two doubles, six RBIs), senior infielder-pitcher Reising (.346, three doubles, one triple) and junior infielder Adam Pashea (.333, three RBIs). Sean Edrington has driven in five runs.
“We don’t have one person out there trying to do everything,” Trapp said.
Ex-Kahoks star honored by SEC
Former Collinsville Kahoks right-hander Tanner Houck, now a freshman at Missouri, was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week on Monday.
Houck (5-1) was dominant in the Tigers’ 10-1 win over fourth-ranked Florida as he carried a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning and retired 21 of the first 22 hitters he faced. Houck, who leads Mizzou with five wins, allowed four hits while striking out six and not walking anyone in eight innings.
Houck’s 2.70 ERA is 14th in the SEC and he ranks second in the conference in innings pitched (56 2/3) and five walks. Houck, who decided to attend Mizzou instead of signing with the Toronto Blue Jays after being drafted last June, has 46 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings.
Here comes Highland
While it would be tough to classify Highland Bulldogs coach Joel Hawkins as either ecstatic or giddy after his team’s 5-0 start, Hawkins was extremely happy with the way things have been going to this point.
“We’ve been lucky in a couple of them and we’re hoping our pitching does like what we’ve seen so far,” Hawkins said. “We’d like to get our running game and bunting game going, too. The best part of the team so far has been the pitching.”
Pitching, defense and an aggressive, attacking offense have long been staples at Highland during the Hawkins’ era, which includes a state title.
The Bulldogs’ mound staff did not allow more than two runs in any of the first five games, a stretch that included a 3-0 shutout over Carmel in the season opener.
The top pitchers have been senior Olney Community College recruit Grant Geppert (2-0, 0.50 ERA, 16 strikeouts in 14 innings), Pete Baumgartner (0-0, 2.00 ERA, eight strikeouts in seven innings), Tyler Kimmle (1-0, 1.17 ERA) and Matt Beyer (2-0, 1.62 ERA).
In a 9-1 win over Hinsdale South last Friday, Geppert struck out 11 in six innings, scattering four hits and allowing one run. He’s also among the team’s top hitters with a .500 average and three RBIs.
Catcher Matt Augustin (.467) and Cody Bentlage (.267) each have four RBIs. Junior center fielder Andrew Winning (.467, four RBIs) is also off to a hot start along with Geppert, but Hawkins needs to see more proof that his team will be able to sustain a higher level of offense.
“The thing that has me the most excited is the defense — and I hope it continues,” Hawkins said. “It’s a long season, so who knows?”