Now that the preseason hype has given way to the rigors of the regular season, the Waterloo Bulldogs aren’t going away.
They are 16-4, going 12-1 in their previous 13 games since a 3-2 loss at Freeburg on April 4. The Bulldogs are a spotless 6-0 in Mississippi Valley Conference play as they prepare for the Class 3A playoffs.
“We still think there’s some room to improve, but obviously we’re happy with the way we’re playing,” said Waterloo coach Mark Vogel, whose team is ranked third in the Belleville News-Democrat Large-School Baseball Poll behind O’Fallon and Edwardsville.
The two known quantities on the team heading into the season were Arkansas recruit and potential Major League Draft pick Jordan McFarland and Missouri State pitching recruit Tyler McAlister, with Vanderbilt pitching recruit Erik Kaiser as another solid hitter.
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Neither has disappointed and both are enjoying dominant seasons, but the Bulldogs continue to show strong depth in pitching and hitting.
“That’s what’s starting to happen,” said Vogel, who also has everyone healthy again with the return of outfielder Cole Kaiping last week from a back injury. “Everybody knows about Jordan and Tyler, but we’ve got some guys that have the ability to swing the bat. In the last week to 10 days we’re starting to get some more consistent approaches in the middle to the end of our order and it’s making a difference.”
McFarland is hitting .582 with 10 doubles, five homers and 21 RBIs, but is also flashing his speed with a team-leading 25 stolen bases and 34 runs scored.
Having McAlister (.387, seven doubles, two triples, two homers, 18 RBIs) and Kaiser (.417, two homers, 19 RBIs) behind McFarland in the order helps keep opposing teams from simply never giving the senior slugger anything to hit.
“If you pitch around him, usually you run into trouble with some of the other guys in our lineup,” Vogel said of McFarland. “He’s a handful. He can beat you with his power and beat you with his speed.
“Even when he doesn’t center the ball it still goes a long way.”
Counting his first three years at Gibault, McFarland has 23 home runs and 114 RBIs in his career. The staggering numbers continue to grow as major league cross-checkers have joined scouts at recent games trying to assess his potential.
Waterloo’s lineup generated 10 or more runs eight times in its first 19 games. Kane Osterhage (.423, 24 runs) has been an offensive catalyst while Aaron Laskowski (.273), Cole Milam (.256) and Hayden Bender (.333) have combined for 32 RBIs.
While most people think about Waterloo’s hitting, it has been the Bulldogs’ pitching that continues to be among the most consistent weapons in their arsenal. Pitching coach Brian Unger deserves some credit as well.
McAlister is the staff ace with a 6-1 record, 0.42 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 40 innings.
“He’s really been lights out for us all year,” Vogel said. “Tyler’s taken that next step forward and you can see why Missouri State wants him. He’s much more consistent in the strike zone. He’s located his strike zone better and his velocity is up a bit.
“He worked awful hard this past summer and he’s very consistent in the strike zone with three different pitches.”
Kaiser, a junior-right-hander, is 3-0 with an 0.78 ERA while Kaskaskia College recruit Noah Thaggard (3-1, 3.23 ERA) join a solid top three in the rotation.
“Erik Kaiser is continuing to get more and more comfortable pitching,” Vogel said of a right-hander whose fastball tops 90 mph. “He doesn’t have a lot of pitching background, he’s been more of a position player. Noah’s been a valuable part of our staff for 2 1/2 years.”
Vogel said the club gained more confidence with a recent MVC win over defending state champ Highland. While Highland has struggled at times this season, Vogel said records mean little when the two league rivals meet.
Thaggard shut them down on a five-hitter with nine strkeouts in a 4-1 victory.
“They’ve won two state titles in eight years and they’re always difficult,” Vogel said. “If you beat Highland you have to earn it, they don’t beat themselves and they’re well coached. To get them twice this year is really a big feather in our caps and hopefully that’s something we can continue to build on as we move forward.”
Valmeyer Pirates slugger making noise
One of the hottest bats in the area this season can be found in the lineup of one of the smallest schools, the Valmeyer Pirates.
Valmeyer senior catcher and Southwestern Illinois recruit Mark Nappier leads the St. Louis area with 40 RBIs and his seven home runs leads the metro-east and rank second in St. Louis.
Nappier is coming off a five-game tear last week that saw him bash three home runs and drive in nine runs. He also had two doubles and went 6-for-14, pushing his season average to .451.
“He’s not hitting anything cheap at all,” Valmeyer coach Greg Reinhardt said of Nappier, who hit two of those homers at the Gateway Grizzlies’ GCS Ballpark. “He doesn’t get rattled much and when they try to throw the ball by him, he can hit it. He’s always been really mentally tough and doesn’t get down on himself much.”
That includes being hit by pitches with opposing teams trying to work the slugger inside.
“He’s not getting a lot to swing at,” Reinhardt said of Nappier, whose father, Mike Nappier, played for St. Louis University.
The younger Nappier has hung up 12 homers and 70 RBIs the past two seasons and during four years as a starter has 14 home runs and 117 RBIs.
Valmeyer plays host to Dupo on Thursday with the Cahokia Conference-Kaskaskia Division title on the line. Dupo won the previous meeting 2-1 on April 19.
Valmeyer’s top hitters include Easton Wallace (.432, eight doubles, 13 RBIs), Jake Krekel (.424, 10 doubles, 10 RBIs), Tyler Kempfer (.355, five doubles, 21 RBIs) and Michael Chism (.338, 10 RBIs).
The Pirates reached the regional championship last season before losing to Okawville in a game they led 3-0 in the first inning.
“We just got run over by a buzz-saw,” said Reinhardt, who watched the Rockets’ playoff run eventually reach the Class 1A state tournament.
Another 20-win season for O’Fallon
A 20-3 record this spring gives the O’Fallon Panthers their 14th consecutive 20-win season under coach Jason Portz.
“We’ve got a group of kids that work real hard in the offseason and we’ve been fortunate to have a good combination of kids and coaches and people that want to work at the game,” Portz said.
Since Portz took over in 2003, O’Fallon has eight regional titles, four sectional titles and finished third at the state tournament in 2006 (Class AA) and 2009 (Class 4A). Their record from 2003 through Sunday was 389-123 with seven seasons of 30 or more victories.
Portz talked about how much he learned from the coach he followed at O’Fallon, Art Voellinger, and the coach he worked under at Edwardsville previously, Tom Pile. Both are in the Illinois Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Those are people that we always looked up to,” Portz said. “Tom Pile was a mentor of mine and I always listened to Coach Voellinger talk about the impact that guys like (former Belleville Township High coach) Boots Budde had on his career.
“We’re just trying to take a few things from those programs and apply them to our program. There’s been great baseball here in O’Fallon, I’ve just been fortunate to be the next guy in line to continue a great tradition.”
Belleville News-Democrat High School Baseball Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Sunday.
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
Also receiving votes: Belleville East (18-8), Freeburg (19-5), Columbia (11-9), Collinsville (11-11), Civic Memorial (15-10-1)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Mater Dei (4)
Also receiving votes: Althoff (13-7), Wesclin (9-9), Okawville (12-9-1), Valmeyer (15-10-1), Gibault (11-12), Red Bud (8-14)