Sports

Gibault star is player of the year after leading Hawks to the state championship game

Mark Branz has always taken pride in becoming what he calls a ‘self-made’ baseball player.

The ace of the Gibault Hawks pitching staff for the past two seasons has been a key player for coach Andy Skaer’s team since the opening game of his freshman season.

But Branz, by his own admission, is not a great athlete. Instead he used his worth ethic and passion for the game to become the 2019 News-Democrat Class 1A-2A player of the year.

“I really feel like I made myself a ballplayer. I really pride myself in that because when I play select ball and I go to these (baseball) showcases, I feel like the worst athlete on the field. But because I’ve made myself into a good enough ballplayer I’m able to compete with those guys,” Branz said. “I feel like I may be one the slowest guys and I may have the worst vertical (jump) but because I have trained so hard, I am able to compete.”

In 2019, Branz and the Gibault Hawks did more than just compete

A Class 1A first team Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association all-state selection, Branz was just one of several standout players on a Hawks team that reached the state championship game in May in its third-ever appearance at the state tournament.

Branz his .442 with two home runs and 26 RBI while batting in the middle of a Hawks lineup that featured six player with batting averages of .329 or better. On the mound, Branz finished his senior season with a 9-1 record and 4.17 ERA in 11 starts while helping the Hawks to a 27-9 record.

But while the Hawks came up just short of the Class 1A state title, losing 14-5 to Ottawa Marquette in the championship game at Dozer Park in Peoria, Branz and Gibault continued a stretch of strong baseball played in Monroe County. The Hawks second place finish follows consecutive second place finishes from Monroe County rival Valmeyer in 2017 and 2018, and Waterloo finished third in the Class 3A tournament this season.

“I finally watched the state final game,” Branz said. “It was kind of tough to accept at first. But it’s kind of kicked in now. It’s not what we wanted, but second place is nothing to be sad about. It was an incredible run with an incredible team.

“The difference for me this year was confidence. I had that ‘me vs. you’ mentality at the plate and ‘I’m better than you’ type approach that really helped me take step forward mentally. The offensive numbers came. I never really worry about them, but things seemed to work out well.”

Branz’s spectacular career got a boost early in his freshman season when coach Andy Saker put him in the lineup early in 2016.

“Mark came in as a freshman and we knew he was a talented player. Throughout his career he’s played all around the infield and then the last couple of years, he’s pitched a lot of innings ... high quality innings for us,” Skaer said. “He’s a wonderful young man. I’ve talked a lot about him and in the 15 years I’ve been at Gibault, he’s probably our hardest working athlete. And if he’s not, he’s in our top two.

“When we would have open gyms in the winter, he would beat me and that’s never happened before. I would try to get there first and when I would, he would be here already with the gym halfway set up. That’s the type of leadership he showed. Mark was always the first guy to get here and last one to leave. It was a lot fun watching him have the type of year he had this year.”

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Mark Branz hit .442 with two homers and 26 RBI in 2019. TAYLOR HOYLMAN

Continuing his career with the McKendree Bearcats

Branz will continue his baseball career at McKendree University in Lebanon beginning in August where he will be a member of the Bearcats baseball program. He has been told by the Bearcats coaching staff that he will have the opportunity to both pitch and play in the field.

“I had some offers from some smaller schools. But the coaches seem like we really wanted me here. (McKendree),” Branz said. “Plus its close to home and it was important to me to be close enough to where my parents can come and and see me play.”

But no matter what Branz accomplishes at the college level he has many fond memories of Gibault to fall back on.

“This team this season was the closest one I have played on. From the time school started through fall baseball, to working out in the weight room to open gyms and then when the season started, our entire focus was getting to the state tournament. We got there. We just fell a little short of the state title.”

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