Prep Baseball & Softball

New Athens freshman is making a name for himself in the batter’s box

Shortstop Joe Range is putting some sting into the New Athens Yellow Jackets lineup.

The freshman entered this week with a team-high .429 average (27-for-63), 18 RBIs and a .544 on-base percentage. Range also has six doubles, tied with junior Jeremy Wade for the team lead, along with five stolen bases.

“I had (Brandon) Contratto a few years back,” New Athens coach Scott Wine said of the sophomore at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. “He was really good as a freshman, too, but he wasn’t this kind of good. People told me who knew Joe last year, ‘He’ll play for you next year as a freshman.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’

“He came in from day one and yeah, he’s definitely playing. It didn’t take long to see that he was going to be in the middle of our order and probably play shortstop.”

Wine said Range is a grinder who stays within himself at the plate.

“He doesn’t throw many at-bats away,” Wine said of the right-handed hitter. “He goes up there with a pretty good idea of what he’s trying to do. He’s not a guy that’s trying to hit it over the left fielder’s head every at-bat. If (pitchers) are going to pitch him outside, he’ll take that ball to right field. He just kind of takes what they give him.”

Range possesses advanced strike-zone judgment, walking 15 times against just six strikeouts.

“I’m not really hitting homers right now,” Range said. “I’m more trying to put the ball in play anywhere on the field, hitting the gap and focus on being a doubles hitter.”

Of Range’s six strikeouts, Wine estimated that at least three came on “bad pitches” that were called strikes by the plate umpire.

“He doesn’t swing at bad pitches,” Wine said. “That’s hard to teach. He has natural instincts.”

Range said his biggest adjustment has been learning how to handle curveballs.

“I didn’t see as many breaking balls in junior-high as I do at this level,” Range said. “But I’m just learning to wait on them and watch the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. It hasn’t bothered me a lot so far.”

Wine said one of the best qualities about Range is an intense desire to learn.

“What he has going for him is his baseball IQ,” Wine said. “Three years ago, we went to the state tournament and he was a grade-school kid who came out to the field to interview me for a school project. He was asking in-depth baseball questions, not just the run-of-the-mill kind of stuff. He’s full of questions and he wants to get better. He’s willing to put in the time.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat