There’s no shortage of hitting this season at Freeburg High School. The Midgets can match bats with about any team in the metro-east.
But coach Drew Gericke said improved defense has been the primary reason for the 10-game winning streak Freeburg (17-5) has enjoyed since its most recent loss April 11.
“We’ve been doing pretty good,” said Gericke, in his seventh season. “It’s been revolving around our defense. Our pitchers have been throwing strikes, which is huge, and our defense has been playing well. In the losses, the runs we were giving up, a lot of them were unearned because our defense wasn’t making plays. But they’ve been playing pretty good in the last two weeks and it’s shown in our win streak.”
Gericke said the improvement has been in “every aspect of defense.”
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“We’ve been communicating well, we’ve been hitting cutoffs well, limiting our physical and mental errors — the whole deal,” Gericke said. “Earlier in the season, when we were winning, losing, winning, losing, we weren’t playing good defense.
“Our contact pitchers – we don’t have have power arms – don’t get a lot of strikeouts, so we rely heavily on our defense. We’ve kind of cleaned that up and the wins are coming.”
The Midgets fell to 7-5 on April 11 when they couldn’t protect a 3-0 lead and fell 7-3 to Columbia, another talented team that has been on a roll of its own.
Since that defeat, Freeburg’s defense and deep supply of offense has helped it outscore opponents 100-42. The Midgets have scored in double-digits four times.
“We stress just putting the ball in play, hitting the ball hard, and then seeing what can happen,” Gericke said. “They’ve had good approaches lately. Knock on wood, there hasn’t been a lot of strikeouts, so we’ve been putting pressure on defenses. That’s what it comes down to — not striking out and making the defense earn those outs.”
Senior center fielder John Hilpert, who has signed to play at Division II Missouri-St. Louis, hits at the top of the order and is batting .578 (37-for-64) with six doubles, four triples, two home runs, 20 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.
“John Hilpert has been a starter for three years and he’s gotten a little better each year,” Gericke said. “He’s got the speed to help beat out base hits and take the extra base. He makes good contact with the ball.”
Senior shortstop and Southwestern Illinois College recruit Braeden Chandler (.532, seven doubles, four homers, 25 RBIs), senior second baseman Landon Touchette (.420, 16 RBIs, eight stolen bases) and senior pitcher/left fielder Jordan Fritz (.410, 22 RBIs, five stolen bases) also figure heavily into the offensive mix.
“They’re all really good athletes,” Gericke said. “Braeden Chandler, the pop he has from last year to this year, is tremendously better. I credit the weight room for that. Everything just explodes off his bat, whether it’s in the game or the cage. Touchette and Fritz have been good hitters their whole high-school careers.”
Freshman Brady Schmitz (.414, seven doubles), junior Jack Lugge (.348, seven doubles, two homers) and senior Garrett Garland (.327) also have been productive at the plate.
Gericke said a lack of pitching depth is the only negative. Fritz is 1-2 with a 3.42 ERA in six starts, senior Bobby Tedesco is 1-1 with a 2.50 ERA in five games and four starts, sophomore Travis Bergkoetter is 3-1 with a 2.37 ERA in five games and three starts and senior Hunter Borger is 2-0 with a 3.57 ERA in five games and four starts.
Sophomore Brant Bowen is 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA in eight relief appearances.
Gericke isn’t sure whether the April 11 loss to Columbia lit a fire under his team. If it didn’t, Freeburg’s dramatic come-from-behind 9-8 win over Central, ranked No. 1 in the Belleville News-Democrat’s Small-School poll, elevated the spirits of his players.
In that game, Freeburg trailed 8-3, but rallied for six unanswered runs in the final three innings. The Midgets scored three in the bottom of the seventh to pull out the victory.
“I had a long talk with them after (the Columbia) game about mental toughness,” Gericke said. “We’ve been working on mental toughness this year – overcoming adversity and when you make one error, don’t make two errors. We’ve slowly improved our mental toughness, and I think that really showed last Tuesday against Central. That was a good sign. Anything can happen, especially in high-school ball.”
The Midgets were scheduled for a rematch against Columbia last Thursday, but the game was rained out and has been rescheduled for 4:30 p.m. on May 8 in Columbia.
Freeburg reached the Class 3A Sauget Super-Sectional last year and fell 10-5 to Springfield, which finished second to Lemont in the state tournament.
Gericke would relish another long postseason run.
“If we can play lights-out defense and our pitchers get ground balls, I think we can at least compete with anybody,” Gericke said. “The postseason is a whole new ballgame. You hope the best team wins, but sometimes the team that makes the least amount of mistakes wins. Anything can happen.”