Despite his team being voted first in the Belleville News-Democrat Preseason Small-School Baseball rankings, Wesclin coach John Groennert wasn’t overly happy.
Turns out the area coaches doing the voting were right on the money. Wesclin was 4-0 with two shutouts before Wednesday, outscoring its opposition 33-2.
When it comes time to assessing the Warriors under Groennert, two staples every season are an ability to throw strikes and play defense — and Wesclin is loaded with quality pitching arms this spring.
“That’s my main stressing points every year,” said Groennert, whose 24-12 team won a regional last spring before losing to Teutopolis in the sectional semifinals. “We want the pitchers to throw strikes and we work hard on baseball. We have to have guys step up at the plate and be consistent, but we really lack power. We’re more athletic this year, so it’s more of a small-ball atmosphere with singles and doubles.”
Wesclin did lose a group of four talented starters headed by Michael Klein, now at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
“We had a lot of young kids that got time last year,” Groennert said. “I really like our junior class and there’s a lot of potential there. “Our main concern is offense.”
Groennert’s son, junior first baseman Jordan Groennert, shouldn’t be a concern since he’s hitting .714 (5-for-7) with five RBIs. The same holds true for junior infielder-pitcher Jared Timmermann (.700, 7-for-10, six RBIs).
Senior Brendan Bernhardt (.347, 18 RBIs) returns at short. Timmermann (.341, 15 RBIs) and Groennert also return along with junior middle infielder Jarad Steenbergen and junior outfielder Darrell Combs (.325, 11 RBIs).
Seniors Dylan Weh (3-2, 2.53 ERA) and Kenny Hagarty (4-1, 2.91 ERA) and Timmermann (5-1, 1.53 ERA) head a deep and solid pitching staff that includes Groennert, junior Mason Buzzard (3-0, 0.28 ERA) and Steenbergen.
Here’s a look at some of the area’s other small-school teams:
Nashville (31-4): Nashville is searching for some postseason answers after racking up 85 wins the past three seasons and having only one regional title to show for it.
“We feel like sometimes we out-work and out-prepare other teams and can steal some wins, but when tit comes to the postseason teams are all good then,” Hornets coach Chad Malawy said. “We’ve definitely run into some good pitchers.”
Some elite pitching and hitting was lost graduation, but plenty of talent remains led by senior catcher Daniel Thorson (.304, nine doubles, one homer, 18 RBIs), senior middle infielder-pitcher Dylan Mueller (.254, one homer, 10 RBIs) and senior outfielder-designated hitter Trace Musielak (.354, nine doubles, three homers, 21 RBIs).
The 6-foot-7 Mueller (2-0, 1.83 ERA) and senior Troy Pedtke return on the mound, but Malawy is also impressed with sophomores Ryan Brink and Austin Anderson.
Heading up what Malawy called a strong sophomore class are leadoff man and center fielder Hayden Heggemeier, Brink at short and second and pitching, infielder-outfielder Andrew Cash and Anderson.
Central (12-20): A slow start gave way to a strong finish last season as an exceedingly young Central Cougars squad caught fire late before eventually losing to Wesclin in the regional final.
“They exceeded my expectations last year,” said Central coach Kevin Crask, whose 2015 team was 4-1 before Wednesday. “A lot of these kids had to learn how to adjust from the JV to playing on the varsity level. It just took time before they were finally able to catch on and understand the adjustments.”
Pitching should be strong with juniors Mitchel Rule (4-4, 3.21 ERA) and Brent Timmons and sophomores Jack Strieker (1-5, 4.75 ERA) and Carter Truong (1-0, 3.23 ERA).
Senior Houston Kruse (.274, seven RBIs) returns at catcher with Strieker (.207, 10 RBIs) and Rule (.325) at first, Kolby Schulte at second and senior Brandon Richter (.271, seven RBIs) at short.
The outfield will include the hard-hitting Timmons (.293, 13 doubles, 21 RBIs) and senior Dakota Auer (.200, 12 RBIs).
“Last year other teams knew we were young and inexperienced,” Crask said. “I told them this year ‘You guys are going to be walking around with a little bit bigger targets on your back and you’re on the radar.”’
Gibault (21-12): The Hawks went from winning the 2013 Class 1A state title to losing in the regional in Class 2A last spring. Plenty of talent returns led by junior infielder-outfielder Jordan McFarland, the area’s 2014 home run champ who committed to Arkansas over the summer.
McFarland (6-4, 225) hit .437 as a first-team All-Area sophomore with 10 doubles, three triples, seven homers and 42 RBIs.
“Physically he’s matured even more and gotten bigger,” Gibault coach Andy Skaer said. “He’s done a lot of work in the offseason.”
Gibault won three of its first four games, outscoring teams 54-20. The Hawks wiped out a 6-0 deficit against 1A state qualifier New Athens, scoring four in the sixth and seven in the seventh in an 11-7 victory.
Skaer like the potential for his offense, but says the Hawks will need the pitching to come around to become top contenders again.
“Our pitching needs to develop and improve because we’re pretty inexperienced,” Skaer said.
The top mound hopefuls are sophomore Tyler Brinkmann (3-0, 3.82 ERA), senior Dylan McCoy (2-1, 5.13 ERA) and junior Logan Kesler.
Senior shortstop Chandler Purcell (.320, 17 RBIs) is headed to Division II Quincy University and senior McCoy (.348, six RBis) adds another good bat. Purcell is at .538 (7-for-13) this season with eight RBIs while McCoy is also hot (.556, five RBIs), including two pitching wins.
Also back are Alec Skaer, Jake Bircher (.278, five RBIs) and sophomore infielder Trevor Davis, who had three doubles and seven RBIs Saturday in a doubleheader.
Mater Dei (11-16): The Knights figure to be a strong contender with Division I Arkansas State pitching recruit Zach Haake (3-1, 1.69 ERA) back along with Kaskaskia College pitching recruit Kyle Eversgerd (4-3, 2.16 ERA).
Other returning starters include first baseman-pitcher Lucas Deimeke (.333, three homers, 16 RBIs), outfielder Brady Rakers (.289, three homers, 11 RBIs), infielder Grant Johnston (.265, nine RBIs) and shortstop Nick Pollmann (.241).
New Athens (19-19): New Athens finished off a magical postseason run at the 1A state tournament last season, taking home the fourth-place trophy. Top returnees include Southwestern Illinois pitching recruit Brandon Contratto (6-3, 2.09 ERA), third baseman Ryan Reuss and first baseman Jimmy Kiefer (.253, eight RBIs). Contratto and also hit .333 with 11 doubles and 22 RBIs.
Dupo (12-14): The Tigers have several top players returning led by senior Joey Mirabal (.392, 18 RBIs), catcher Austin Francis (.250, 22 RBIs),outfielder Jason Smith, second baseman Lonnie Thornton, shortstop Brandon Roth and left fielder Colin Roth (.246, seven RBIs). Pitcher Jordan Prange (2-0, 3.07 ERA) also returns.