Waterloo has always been a baseball town and right now, an extremely large spotlight is on the Waterloo High Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs aren’t just grabbing attention — they are demanding it.
They began the season with Perfect Game/USA National 17-under Player of the Year Jordan McFarland, a senior power-hitting outfielder and Arkansas recruit expected to be a high-round selection in the upcoming Major League Draft.
McFarland is one of three Division I recruits on the squad along with senior pitcher-infielder Tyler McAlister (Missouri State) and junior pitcher-infielder Erik Kaiser (Vanderbilt). Senior pitcher Noah Thaggard signed with Kaskaskia and senior pitcher-infielder Cole Milam, who signed with Jefferson College, are among the six returning starters for the Bulldogs.
This is veteran coach Mark Vogel’s 24th season and easily the one with the most anticipation and hype surrounding it. Waterloo (24-12 last season) was ranked seventh in the state by Illinois PrepBaseballReport.com, trailing only second-ranked Edwardsville among area teams.
“There’s two reasons for that,” Vogel said. “McFarland coming over from Gibault and having the kind of summer he had, plus all our returning players from last year. You factor all those things in and we definitely have a lot of hype.
“We definitely have lofty expectations and we’re shooting toward postseason, so our message from day one is you’ve got to take care of today. If these guys come out and work at it every day, we’ll be competitive.”
Edwardsville and Waterloo were the top two teams in the News-Democrat Preseason Class 3A-4A Baseball Rankings.
“Everybody that I’ve talked to that knows I’m the Waterloo baseball coach tells me how good we’re going to be,” joked Vogel, whose team won a regional last year before losing to Mississippi Conference rival and eventual Class 3A state champ Highland in the sectional. “It’s good publicity for our town and our community’s excited about it.”
Big Mac Attack
McFarland (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) is one of the top power-hitting prospects in the metro-east in quite some time. He hit .427 with eight homers and 42 RBIs last spring at Gibault as a junior with a .528 on-base percentage.
“The ball just jumps off his bat a little differently,” said Vogel, who will use McFarland in center field. “It just sounds differently when he’s hitting in the cages. I think he’s going to enjoy hitting in our park.”
As a freshman he once homered in four straight at-bats. During his first three high school seasons, McFarland has 19 homers and 94 RBIs.
“What impresses me about him seeing him every day is that he’s a physical specimen,” Vogel said. “He’s just a big, strong athletic kid and more importantly, hes’ got a great work ethic. To me that’s been the most impressive things so far.
“He’s got a great attitude and hes’ working awfully hard. I can see why he had the kind of summer he had last year and why he’s gotten so much publicity.”
Season outlook: talent and pitching depth
This should be one of the deepest pitching staffs in school history.
McAlister (3-3, 3.50 ERA) is consistently in the 88-90 mph range according to Vogel and also adds another big bat in the lineup while hitting behind McFarland. McAlister (6-5, 190) crushed opposing pitching for a .458 average last spring with seven home runs and 33 RBIs, both team highs.
“He really struggled being consistent on the mound last year, but this year he’s a little more comfortable,” Vogel said. “When he trusts his stuff, there’s a reason he’s going to Missouri State.”
Thaggard beat Mascoutah last season in the regional semifinals, then got a save in relief in the regional title game.
“He’s probably the most polished pitcher on our staff,” Vogel said. “His last four outings he was lights-out for us last year.”
The 6-foot-5 Kaiser has also struggled at times with control issues, but caught fire last summer with the St. Louis Pirates travel team and began attracting offers from all over before committing to Vanderbilt.
He threw only 2 1/3 innings for Waterloo as a sophomore so still has a lot to prove.
“He really was more of an everyday player all the way way back to his junior-high days,” Vogel said. “He really put a lot of work in with the Pirates and Coach (Brett) Huber and Coach (Rick) Strickland really did a nice job with him when he exploded at the end of the summer.
“When you watch him throw a bullpen you can tell why Vanderbilt wants him.”
Vogel said the hard-throwing 6-3, 225-pound Milam (0-2, 3.94 ERA), Ben Maurer (3-2, 2.14 ERA), senior lefty Cole Kaiping (2-0, 2.21 ERA) and senior Aaron Laskowski (5-0, 2.22 ERA) are also available for mound duty.
Senior Kane Osterhage, who helped Waterloo to its first state soccer championship last fall, is a three-year starter at shortstop and also hits leadoff. He hit .391 last spring with nine doubles, three triples, 16 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.
Sophomore catcher Quinten Albrecht (.250, five RBIs) got plenty of varsity starts as a freshman and figures to be improved.
Milam (.296, two homers, eight RBIs, who has dealt with some early arm issues, will see time at first along with McAlister. Maurer (.306, 10 RBIs) is at second with Kaiser (.298, two homers, 16 RBIs) and Hayden Bender (.346, eight RBis) at third.
The outfield spots are held by Kaiping (.273, 12 RBIs), Chase Rubemeyer, Laskowski (.200, 11 RBIs) and Max Jennings.
“I think the potential is there for a high upside,” Vogel said. “Yeah, we’ve got some pop in the middle of the order but we can really run, too.”