The O’Fallon Panther baseball team was forced to spend a cold, bitter winter reflecting on their final game of the 2014 campaign.
After steamrolling through the regular season to finish 32-4 and battling their way to the Southwestern Conference regular season title with a 13-1 record, the Panthers were blindsided by Belleville West 2-1 in the regional semifinals.
Exorcising that excruciating memory through hard work in the offseason, the Panthers will sprint onto the diamond this spring with renewed energy and, perhaps, a bit of a chip on their shoulders which very well could translate into another banner year for coach Jason Portz’s charges.
O’Fallon will return six of its everyday starters from last spring along with two of their top three starting pitchers. That combination of proven, veteran leadership and baseball acumen could be a lethal combination. Portz, at least, believes so.
“Our lineup will have a great deal of depth this year—perhaps the most explosive group through the middle of our order that we have had in quite a few years,” Portz said. “This has been a great team to work with. Our kids have been dedicated in improving their skills and I look forward for them to continue the great tradition of success that we have had in the past.”
Portz, entering his 13th season as the head baseball coach at OTHS while compiling a career coaching record of 340-115-1, has mentored his fair share of outstanding baseball players. With this group of Panthers, he feels something special in the air could be in the air.
Optimism in the Panther camp begins on the mound. O’Fallon’s top two starters from 2014 return to give OTHS plenty of firepower on the hill—the best one-two punch in the conference according to Portz. Chris Holba, committed to East Carolina, and Bradley Harrison, who is going to SIU-C, will make up O’Fallon’s dynamic pitching duo. Holba ended last spring with a 6-0 record and a 1.28 ERA. Harrison went 4-0 with a 1.79 ERA. The pitching tandem will be joined in the starting rotation by Chris Dye and Grant Robison. Sophomore left-hander Max Schaefer, junior Camden Bauer, Kyle VanBevern, Jackson Penrod and Dillon Weiss might also see mound duty out of the bullpen.
Complementing a deep and talented pitching staff, the Panthers will field familiar faces at the infield positions. Bradley Snyder returns at first base after an outstanding sophomore campaign. Snyder ripped opposition pitching in 2014 to the tune of a .424 batting average while driving in 21 runs. VanBevern, holding down third base last spring, hit .403 and did not commit an error in 66 fielding chances.
Portz has tentatively penciled in VanBevern to fill the third base slot although he may see action at shortstop. Going into the 2015 season, Bauer will patrol the shortstop position. Second base is the one interior defensive position that is still up in the air. Portz lists Joe Guithes, Jake Maxey and Connor Breyer as players who could step into the position and provide solid fielding and hitting.
Roaming the outfield positions for the Panthers will be another mostly veteran crew coming off outstanding seasons last year. The group will be headed by Harrison—who earned All-State honors last spring as a sophomore—in right field. Harrison pounded the ball at a .408 clip and collected 32 RBI’s in 2014. Portz expects a repeat from his right fielder who he characterized as “our best overall player.”
Patrolling centerfield for O’Fallon will be speedy junior Weiss, who demonstrated his quickness and athleticism last fall as an All-SWC defensive back. Running down fly balls instead of wide receivers will be Weiss’ mission this spring and Portz is confident the Panther junior will benefit from increased playing time. Currently, five players are vying for the starting leftfield position. Seniors Penrod and Nick Crabtree, junior Kurt Ober, and sophomores Cody Crowder and Christian Koechner have all had good preseason workouts, and all are in the hunt for the starting spot.
Along with left field, the catching position will be manned by a player with less varsity experience. Senior Jacob Holl and sophomore Chase Hackstadt will share the duties behind the plate. Both players, according to Portz, have the skill to succeed at the demanding position.
“Jacob and Chase both saw limited time last year,” Portz explained. “They have both worked hard to improve their skills and will give us a quality backstop this year regardless of who wins the spot.”
A wild card for the Panthers and their ultimate success in 2015 is the current crop of freshmen players who have not played enough at the high school level to warrant an evaluation. Portz does think players at the freshmen level could make an impact as varsity players as the season progresses.
“Our 2018 class has outstanding depth, one of the deeper classes we have had come in recently,” Portz said. “However, there is not a player who has separated himself as a legitimate prospect for varsity playing time. We will just have to let them play and gain experience and confidence.”
In the rugged Southwestern Conference, Portz sees the league in four tiers in 2015. Teams with the best shot of capturing the SWC title include Edwardsville, Alton and O’Fallon. The second tier includes Belleville East, Belleville West and Granite City. Affected by numerous graduation losses, Collinsville falls into the third tier with East St. Louis looking up at the rest of the conference.
As the Panthers were made painfully aware in their last game of 2014, however, games are won or lost between lines. The year’s OTHS squad will begin their diamond journey this spring next Wednesday, March 18, with a road game at Marquette. Next Saturday, March 21, they are scheduled to host a round robin with teams from Peoria Notre Dame, Anna-Jonesboro and Harrisburg visiting Blazier Field.