After a slow start to a high school baseball season that has been plagued in the early going by frigid temperatures and postponements, the Belleville East Lancers have shown recent signs of heating up at the plate.
In a six-game streak that began with a combined no-hitter by Ryan Culley and Ben Cruikshank in a 2-0 win at Collinsville and included a four-game stretch last week in which the Lancers scored 56 runs, Belleville East could be a force in the Southwestern Conference this spring. At least that's what third year coach Ryan Wiggs is hoping.
With five seniors, including Culley and outfielder Austin Hitt, providing leadership for an otherwise young squad, the Lancers are 7-5 following a 13-3 loss to undefeated O'Fallon on Tuesday. And at 2-1 in league play, East trails only O'Fallon (4-0) and Edwardsville (3-0) in the SWC.
East finished 17-20 overall last year in a season that ended in a Class 4A regional loss to O'Fallon. Although only 12 games have been played this season, the Lancers show signs of vast improvement.
"The players who are playing varsity now were here when we came in three years ago. They understand what we're doing to make the program better," Wiggs said. "Plus we've got some newer kids in the lineup who have really stepped up and hit the ball well for us.
"Drew (Gray) is a freshman, Zechariah Georgian and Austin Hitt are our three top hitters right now, and they've really done a good job of not only hitting, but also drawing walks, getting on base and making things happen."
The Lancers made things happen a week ago. In a stretch that included a 20-0 win over Pinckneyville, East scored at least 10 runs in four straight games as it improved to a season high four games over .500 (7-3).
"Last week was good for us. First of all, we got a chance to play five games and get things settled a little bit," Wiggs said. "Plus we only have five seniors on the roster. We're playing a lot of sophomores and juniors and building towards something.
"For us to score 56 runs in four games, it was a big boost in confidence for these young kids."
The freshman to make an impact in the Southwestern Conference, Drew Gray leads the Lancers with a .450 batting average. A solid defender in right field, Gray was ticketed to play on the Lancers junior-varsity team when workouts began this winter, but has proven to be a pleasant surprise for Wiggs.
"You don't see many players come in and start as freshmen in the SWC. And make an impact as well. Drake (Westcott), of Edwardsville, did last year and then Josh (Gibson), of O'Fallon, are the last two that come to mind," Wiggs said. "But Drew has come in and earned his spot. He's been patient at the plate, not swinging at bad pitches and just done a really good job for us."
Zechariah Georgian (.385) and Hitt (.294) have been solid in the second and third spots in the order, while junior Evan Gray (Drew's brother), Missouri State recruit Ben Cruikshank and sophomore outfielder/pitcher Sam McAnulty (.417) have also done well at the plate for the Lancers.
The pitching staff is led by senior Culley (3-0, 0.00 ERA), McAnulty (1-1, 3.50 ERA), Evan Gray (1-1, 4.50 ERA) and Cruikshank (0-2).
But Culley, a second team all-SWC hurler a year ago, leads the way.
"Ryan has just been outstanding for us. He hasn't given up an earned run all year ... He's also only given up only four hits," Wiggs said. "He knows how to pitch and throws strikes."
The Lancers lost to Freeburg 5-4 on Monday to O'Fallon 13-3 on Tuesday. They will try to break a two-game losing streak Thursday at Edwardsville. East closes its week out Saturday by taking on Mater Dei and Columbia.