Going two years without a regional championship is an eternity for the O’Fallon Panthers, one of the area’s most successful baseball programs.
Since 2004 the Panthers have won seven regionals, twice finished third at state and routinely have treated the 30-win mark like a rite of spring. O’Fallon also has won or shared Southwestern Conference titles in three of the last four seasons and six times since 2006.
After being eliminated from the playoffs in the regional in each of the last two years, expect the Panthers (32-4 last season) to put up an even stronger challenge in 2015.
“It’s a credit to baseball in our area,” O’Fallon coach Jason Portz said of the early playoff defeats. “It happens and it’s part of high school sports. It’s certainly not something that we talk about. The fact is we won 32 games last year and won a Southwestern Conference championship.
“We got beat by a good team. The last couple years we’ve had some hiccups and hopefully this season at the end of the year we’re playing our best baseball and giving ourselves the best chance to win in the postseason.”
Despite losing 2014 News-Democrat Player of the Year Blake Deatherage, All-Area outfielder Jeff Hahs and other talented players to graduation, the Panthers have a wealth of talent returning.
At the top of the list are senior pitcher and East Carolina recruit Chris Holba, junior left-hander and Southern Illinois University Carbondale outfield recruit Bradley Harrison, senior third baseman Kyle VanBevern and junior first baseman Bradley Snyder.
“You have to like the middle of our order, Portz said.
Harrison hit .408 as an all-state and All-Area sophomore with six doubles, four homers and 32 RBIs, while Snyder was at .424 with two doubles, two triples and 21 RBIs. VanBevern had a .403 average with four doubles, one homer and 13 RBIs with 13 stolen bases.
“(Harrison) is more dynamic than he was as a freshman and sophomore,” Portz said. “This year he’s more of a well-rounded hitter who’s going to spray the ball around the field more. He looks stronger and his bat speed and strength continues to improve.”
Portz also thinks Snyder could have a breakout year.
“He’s as consistent as any kid we’ve ever had ... he’s stronger and has better bat speed than what he’s had and put on 25 pounds, grown a couple inches,” Portz said. “He’s just a bigger, better, faster athlete than he was last year as a sophomore.”
Holba (6-0, 1.78 ERA, 49 strikeouts in 43 innings) and Harrison (4-0, 1.79 ERA, 34 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings) anchor a deep pitching staff that includes seniors Chris Dye and Grant Robison, sophomore lefty Max Schaefer and more in relief.
“Harrison and Holba give us as good of a 1-2 punch as we’ve had in our program,” Portz said. “Holba’s a guy that can consistently pitch up around 88 to 91 (mph) and with his ability to throw his breaking ball and command his changeup. He’s going to give us a lot of quality innings.”
Portz said this might be his best defensive team in 13 years as coach and the infield includes Snyder at first Holba at second, Alabama recruit Camden Bauer (.233, two doubles, 15 RBIs) at short and VanBevern.
Other infield hopefuls include sophomores Joe Guithues, Jake Maxey and Connor Breyer.
The outfield should be solid with Harrison in right and Dillon Weiss (.250) in center. Left field has several candidates including seniors Jackson Penrod and Nick Crabtree, junior Kurt Ober and sophomores Cody Crowder and Christian Koechner.
Senior Jacob Holl takes over at catcher, with sophomore Chase Hackstadt also figuring to see some action. Senior Adam Biehn, Hackstadt, Connor Breyer anad Guithues could see time at designated hitter.
“I think these guys are disappointed in the way things finished last year, there’s no doubt about that,” Portz said. “We knew going into that game that could certainly happen. We got knocked off so our kids have some motivation, but they also know it’s going to be one win at a time. There’s some pretty good teams in our conference that are going home (every season) and it takes a lot of luck to win in the postseason year after year.”