Returning several players from a team that finished second in the Southwestern Conference and won 32 games a year ago, O'Fallon baseball coach Jason Portz couldn't have asked for a better start to the 2018 season this week at Blazier Field.
Competing in chilly conditions Saturday in its finale of the Metro East Kickoff Classic, the Panthers scored seven runs in the second inning and went on for an 8-3 win over Class 4A state contender Chicago Brother Rice to finish 3-0 in the season-opening event.
O'Fallon (3-0) benefited from five walks by Brother Rice starting pitcher Eli Sweiss and got run-scoring hits from Josh Gibson, Brayden Arnold and Jared Dalonzo in the inning. Nine-straight O'Fallon players reached base during the uprising, which featured 14 O'Fallon batters coming to the plate.
The seven runs were more than enough for O'Fallon starter Hayden Juenger, who worked the first five innings to get the win. It was the third-straight solid pitching performance by the Panthers staff, which gave up just five runs in 21 innings during the tournament.
Five pitchers combined to hold Mater Dei in check in a 7-2 win in the opener while senior Logan Boente and Jaysn Miller combined to limit Oak Forest to one hit in a 1-0 Panthers win Friday. But on Saturday it was Juenger, bigger and stronger after an offseason in the weight room, who silenced one of the top offensive teams in the state.
"They (Brother Rice) have seven NCAA Division I recruits on their roster, so from a talent standpoint, they might be as good as we'll face during the season,'' Portz said. "Hayden (Juenger) did a nice job of getting ahead of the hitters and keeping the ball down in the strike zone.
"Last night we beat a very good Oak Forest team, which has been very strong in the Joliet area in the past and then today, Hayden, who really put a lot of time in the weight room to improve is strength and ability to go deeper into games, gave us a good effort and then Adam (Drewry) and Jaysn (Miller) came in the last two innings to shut the door on them."
O'Fallon managed just six hits, but took advantage of nine walks by three Crusaders hurlers. Gibson, a senior who has started every game in his first three years in a Panthers uniform, had one of the big hits bin the seven run inning. The Panthers shortstop and leadoff hitter bounced a double off third base, scoring two runs.
Arnold and Dalonzo also drove in two runs each.
"This was not the easiest day in the world to play today. It was really chilly, but I thought our hitters had some very good at bats, worked the count and were able to get on base,'' Portz said. "We still left a lot of men on base, but hopefully by the middle or late April, our hitting will come around.
"Overall, it was a good start to the season. We have a lot of experience on this team and they know what they need to do. It's a good group of kids which is a lot of fun to work with and be around."