Belleville West baseball coach Todd Baltz will be the first to admit that his starting lineup hasn’t spent much time working on home run celebrations.
Especially since the Maroons have only one, hit by Wyatt Parker, in 16 games this season.
“Our lineup doesn’t impress anybody if you look at our averages and things, but we get key hits,” said Baltz, whose 12-4 team is tied for first place in the Southwestern Conference with a 4-1 league mark headed into Tuesday’s showdown at home against fellow first-place O’Fallon. “We take good at-bats when we have guys in scoring position and timely hitting has been a big factor for us so far.”
O’Fallon is first in the latest BND Large-School Rankings and Belleville West is fourth.
Senior Cal Kossina said the Maroons enjoy being in the classic underdog role. With little varsity experience returning, not many knew what to expect from them but they are 9-2 in their last 11 games.
“It feels good to prove a lot of people wrong,” Kossina said. “In our conference whatever team shows up to play that day can shock the other teams — and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.
“It’s a lot of teamwork. Everybody in the field knows what their job is.”
It feels good to prove a lot of people wrong. In our conference whatever team shows up to play that day can shock the other teams — and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.
Belleville West senior Cal Kossina
Especially with three starting pitchers posting earned-run averages below 1.00. The list includes junior staff ace Luke Vallandingham (5-0, 0.66 ERA, 38 strikeouts in 32 innings), Kossina (2-2, 0.40 ERA and Matt Sisk (2-0, 0.51 ERA). Kossina shut down Althoff on one hit through six inning last week with five strikeouts in a 2-0 victory.
Kossina, a senior catcher, infielder and pitcher, has been West’s top hitter the past two seasons.
The Southwestern Illinois College recruit is hitting .583 with 16 RBIs, 11 stolen bases and 19 runs scored. He also has only one strikeout in 61 plate appearances.
“I stay a lot after practice and usually hit extra,” said Kossina, who hit a team-leading .442 as a junior with 10 RBIs and was at .375 as a sophomore. “When I’m in the box I don’t think, because if you get in your head you won’t have much success. I just try to put a good swing on the ball and drive it back up the middle.
“I’ll get into one every once in a while, but it’s mostly singles.”
The Maroons don’t care what he’s hitting as long as his hot bat in the lineup. That might be at catcher, third base, shortstop or pitcher, but the versatile Kossina is most comfortable with a bat in his hands.
“He makes solid contact, doesn’t strike out much and finds holes out there,” Baltz said. “It’s not a big surprise at all. He’s just been so consisten over the last two years it doesn’t surprise us that he puts the ball in play like he does.”
Kossina is the younger brother of former Maroons and McKendree University baseball standout Tony Kossina. Their father is Dave Kossina, the top starting pitcher on Columbia’s 1987 Class A state championship team who later pitched at McKendree.
Growing up around the sport made a difference, Cal Kossina said.
“It helps out a lot, my dad coached me a lot until freshman year,” Kossina said. “I learned a lot from watching Tony too, I learned a lot from both of them.”
Kossina also credited former Maroons pitching ace Parker Beine, currently in his sophomore season at Jefferson Junior College before heading to Division I Marshall.
“He took me under my wing when I was a sophomore and helped me a lot, helped me feel comfortable at the varsity level,” Kossina said. “I give a lot of props to him.”
Leadoff man Jack Lanxon (.360, 20 runs scored) sets the table for the offense and Kossina, Nick Oglesby (.319, four doubles, 11 RBIs), Parker (.295, one homer, 13 RBIs) and Sisk (.259, three doubles, nine RBIs) have come up with some timely hits.
“We seem to find a way to get the runs when we need them,” Baltz said. “Maybe we’ve surprised a few people here, but there’s a long way to go.”
The emergence of Vallandingham has been big. Among his wins are an 11-strikeout performance against Belleville East and a 10-strikeout outing against Alton.
“He’s our bulldog on the mound,” Kossina said. “If we’ve got guys on base, he’ll buckle down and get a strikeout. He hits it his spot every time and I really like catching him. He’s real easy to catch.”
Baltz said the biggest difference in Vallandingham over last season is his velocity, which now hovers in the mid-80 mph range.
“He’s gotten a lot of our tough games and he’s done a really good job,” Baltz said. “He’s pitched through some struggles where he didn’t have his best stuff and he made it work anyway. He’s turning into quite a pitcher for us lately.”
No-hitter for West grad Ian Zimmerman
Belleville West graduate Ian Zimmerman recently threw the first no-hitter for Robert Morris-Chicago since 2013, striking out a career-high 11 and walking two last Wednesday in a 6-0 victory over Lindenwood-Belleville. Zimmerman, a junior, is 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA and 24 strkeouts in 20 innings.
Dupo Tigers turning heads
Dupo’s 5-1 victory Saturday over top-ranked Carlyle definitely got the Tigers some attention in the Cahokia Conference and elsewhere.
Coach Brad Daubach’s club was 6-1 in its last seven games before Monday while improving to 10-4 overall and 3-1 on the Kaskaskia Division side of the conference.
“I had great expectations for this team,” said Daubach, a brother of former Boston Red Sox slugger and Belleville native Brian Daubach. “We’ve had a lot of kids step up that didn’t last year and it’s been huge. The top five in my lineup have been absolutely awesome.”
Dupo catcher Austin Francis got a rare pitching start against Carlyle and came through in a big way, allowing four hits and striking out seven in a complete-game performance.
“He’s been my maintstay catcher, but I told him he needed to pitch,” Daubach said. “He didn’t shrug me off. He asked for the start and got it, did a great job. We knocked off a good team.”
Francis’ competitive nature has endeared him to Daubach.
“I like his confidence and his composure,” Daubach said of Francis, a starter since his freshman year who is hitting .472 with four doubles, one homer and 15 RBIs. “Behind the plate, he’s strong. He does a magnificent job behind the plate.”
Shortstop Brandon Roth (.390, four doubles, eight RBIs) and center fielder Collin Roth (.360, seven doubles, one homer, 15 RBIs) have also been offensive weapons along with pitcher-infielder Drake Harvell (.471, four doubles, one homer, 15 RBIs) and outfielder-pitcher Taylor Stanek (.389, two homers, 15 RBIs).
The pitching has been mostly solid behind Harvell (4-2, 38 strikeouts in 23 innings), Stanek (3-0, 3.92 ERA) and now Francis.
In the Cahokia Conference, much of the focus is on the Mississippi Division side of things with perennial playoff contenders like Freeburg, Columbia, Carlyle, Wesclin and Central.
“We haven’t gotten much attention at all, and that’s OK,” Daubach said. “If we come in as the underdogs, we’re going to sneak up on some people. We’ve got a really good lineup, we’ve got fast guys and guys that know how to do their jobs. I like our chances.”
Next up for Dupo is a home game Tuesday against a Valmeyer team (11-5-1 overall, 5-0 league play) they are chasing for first place in the conference. Dupo also won conference titles in 2012 and 2015.
The Pirates have a productive lineup led by SWIC recruit Mark Nappier (.481, six doubles, three homers, 24 RBIs), Jake Krekel (.453, 23 runs scored, seven RBIs, 10 stolen bases) and Easton Wallace (.443, five doubles, nine RBIs, 10 stolen bases).
Belleville News-Democrat High School Baseball Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Sunday.
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
Also receiving votes: Freeburg (15-3), Collinsville (10-9), Highland (6-7), Belleville East (12-7), Columbia (8-6), Mascoutah (8-8), Civic Memorial (9-10-1)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Mater Dei (3)
Also receiving votes: Wesclin (8-6), Dupo (10-4), Gibault (10-6), Okawville (7-7-1), Valmeyer (11-5-1)