Despite being moved to a higher playoff classification this spring after making a strong run to the Class 2A state tournament in 2014, the Freeburg Midgets are quite familiar with their playoff opponents.
The top-seeded team in its own regional, the Midgets (25-5) will battle with Cahokia Conference rival Columbia (20-12) as well as Waterloo (22-11) , Mascoutah (21-14), East St. Louis and Cahokia.
Cahokia Conference-Mississippi Division champ Freeburg beat Columbia twice this season and Waterloo once, losing 1-0 to Mascoutah in early April.
“With that great run we had (winning 21 of its first 23 games)), we had great focus because we were still in conference play,” Freeburg coach Drew Gericke said. “Once the conference play was over we had a little bit of a letdown and relaxed too much. Now that the regionals are close we’re finding that focus and energy again.”
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Freeburg will rely on much of the same talent nucleus that helped produce the state tourney trip last spring, when they tied for third place because the third-place game was rained out.
“Our core guys this year were core guys last year on that run,” Gericke said. “Experience is a good thing, but you still have to put that experience to use. You’ve got to be able to rub that off on the other guys that don’t have experience. In the postseason there’s going to be a lot of highs and lows and you’ve got to keep the emotions in check.”
The top of Freeburg’s lineup is as scary as any team in the area. Junior catcher Keegan Baxmeyer (.483, nine doubles, five homers, 25 RBIs) leads the potent blend of speed, hitting and power that includes senior outfielder Cody Siebenberger (.456, nine doubles, five triples, 19 RBIs), junior infielder Ty Dill (.422, 20 RBIs) and senior outfielder Derricke Rozycke (.333, 27 RBIs).
Gericke said Rozycke has heated up of late and helps make the offense even stronger.
Freeburg senior ace right-hander Luke Yaekel is a remarkable story all by himself. Yaekel had to have blood drained from his brain last October during emergency surgery after a cyst he was born with burst following a hard hit he received in football.
Yaekel made remarkable progress and was able to return for baseball, becoming the Midgets’ top pitcher with a 6-1 record and 1.13 ERA.
“It’s been great and it shows a lot of the courage that he has,” Gericke said of Yaekel, who wears a protective device inside of his baseball cap. “He’s worked extremely hard and baseball has been his sport forever. That drive to play at the next level has really helped him, too.
“Maybe that injury he had in football kind of opened his eyes up a little bit, to see he’s got to work hard to get what he needs because you never know when the next game’s going to be.”
Freeburg’s other top pitchers include Elias Czech (5-1, 1.35 ERA) and Nolan Maue (6-0, 1.07 ERA) with Joe Wolf (3-2, 1.91 ERA) returning from a hip injury.
Waterloo has been inconsistent at times with a young club, but has won three of its last four and could be peaking at the right time.
Junior Missouri State pitching recruit Tyler McAlister has emerged as a definite power source, hitting .475 with seven homers and 33 RBIs. Outfielder Ryan Aycock (.420, 19 RBIs), Brett Degener (.373, 19 RBIs) and Kane Osterhage (.364, 15 RBIs, 20 stolen bases) also help drive the Bulldogs’ offense.
Senior Corey Vogel (4-1, 1.68 ERA) continues to pitch well and Waterloo also relies on McAlister (3-3, 3.35 ERA), Aaron Laskowski (5-0, 2.05 ERA) and Noah Thaggard (4-3, 3.66 ERA).
Columbia has not won a regional title since 2007, when the Eagles won the second of their two state baseball championships.
Columbia has one of the area’s top offensive players in junior outfielder Cameron Touchette (.558, 13 doubles, two homers, 23 RBIs, 35 runs, 43 stolen bases) and a top pitcher in Brendan Wilhelm (7-2, 1.48 ERA).
Lamont Read (.330, 23 RBIs), J.T. Broshears (.324, 15 RBIs), Zach Mathews (.301, 14 RBIs) and Brian Dougherty (.289, two homers, 24 RBIs) add more strength to the lineup.
A team definitely not to be overlooked is Mascoutah, which owns wins over Freeburg, Columbia and Waterloo and has won three of its last four games. The Indians also have the type of pitching depth that could allow them to win the regional thanks to Noah Kraljev (6-4, 1.55 ERA), Daniel Milas (5-5, 2.01 ERA) and Connor Waltsgott (5-2, 2.45 ERA).
Senior catcher Jeff Hightower (.391, 13 doubles, two homers, 28 RBIs) has been a load all season along with senior Wyatt Elbe (.317, five homers, 31 RBIs).
Class 3A Baseball Playoffs
Top seeds: (1) Freeburg, (2) Waterloo, (3) Mascoutah, (4) Columbia
Pick to win: Freeburg
Could challenge: Waterloo, Columbia or Mascoutah
Analysis: These teams all know each other well, but Freeburg holds the edge in head-to-head competition. After reaching the 2A state tournament a year ago, can the Midgets find success in Class 3A. Each team will be required to toss its ace just to reach the finals, so the team with the best pitching should emerge victorious.
Top seeds: (1) Jerseyville, (2) Highland, (3) Civic Memorial, (4) Marquette
Pick to win: Highland
Could challenge: Civic Memorial or Jerseyville
Analysis: There will be no secrets here with a heavy Mississippi Valley Conference flavor and the league was so balanced three teams tied for the league title. Jerseyville at home will be tough, but none of these teams seems capable of overwhelming anyone. This should be one of the area's most competitive regionals and Highland senior Grant Geppert (.388, 25 RBIs; 6-3, 1.47 ERA) could have a big impact.