Kaneland aims to maintain focus and recapture the magic
Here we go again.
Believe it or not, it has been nearly a year since Kaneland captured the Class 3A state baseball championship with an 11-3 victory over Oak Forest.
"Looking back at it, it was a blur," said Knights coach Brian Aversa. "You have to enjoy it while it lasts. Before I knew it, we were playing on a Saturday for the state championship.
"It was great."
Despite graduating a ton of talent from last year's team, Kaneland finds itself in a similar position heading into this week's postseason tournament — as the top seed in the regional.
"We've put a good season together," said Aversa, whose Knights (24-9) open their own regional Wednesday afternoon against either DeKalb or IMSA.
Led by John Hopkins (team-leading 7 wins), Trevor Storck (6-0), and versatile reliever Bryan Van Bogaert, the performance of Kaneland's pitching staff has even surprised its coach.
"We really thought in preseason that our pitching would struggle some while the bats and defense would carry us," said Aversa. "But it has been the exact opposite.
"Our pitching and defense have been good and we've squeaked out just enough runs to get by. One thing I really learned from last year is that pitching will get us where we want to be."
With second-seeded Marmion (19-10), St. Francis and familiar foe DeKalb also in the regional, nothing will be handed to Kaneland.
"This is one heck of a buzzsaw of a regional," said Aversa. "It's going to be a real good challenge."
Marmion, which faces conference rival St. Francis on Thursday in Maple Park, is anchored by pitchers Chris Simon and Connor Riley, and veteran catcher Kyle Kozak.
Coach Dave Rakow's Cadets split their two previous meetings with the Spartans, winning 11-1 (April 23) while losing a 13-12, 9-inning thriller (April 24).
The Cadets would love to get a chance to atone for their 7-2 loss to Kaneland in Saturday's regional championship.
A year ago, Kaneland, Marmion and St. Francis all reached the 3A sectional title contests.
This time around, the regional winner will advance to the Sycamore sectional.
There's a lot of local flavor in Class 4A, too, with Upstate Eight Conference River Division rivals Geneva (26-7), St. Charles North (23-11) and St. Charles East (22-10) earning the top three seeds in the Schaumburg sectional.
"It's a nice tip of the cap to our conference," said Geneva coach Matt Hahn.
With hard-throwing junior ace Andy Honiotes (8-0), classmate Jordan Touro, seniors Drew White and Matt Brandys, and up-and-coming Tony Landi, the Vikings possess one of the deepest starting staffs in the area.
And they have a top-notch closer in Matt Williams (6 saves), who also leads the team with 8 home runs and 45 RBI.
Offensively, Geneva features a potent attack spearheaded by catalyst Andy Francis, Brandys (school record-tying 52 hits), John Swiderski, and Williams. The Vikings have scored 61 runs in their last 4 games.
"Up and down the lineup, we have guys that can hit the ball hard," said Hahn. "We have different types of hitters — guys who hit for power and others who know their strengths and weaknesses."
Francis and Brandys, a transfer from Wheaton Academy, have formed a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the Vikings' batting order.
"Our leadoff spot was a big question mark going into the season but Andy has been a real nice surprise," said Hahn, whose team will face either Bartlett or Streamwood Wednesday at the Lake Park regional.
Another positive for Geneva is the fact that it won't have to face nemesis Wes Benjamin this season. The former St. Charles East standout (now at Kansas) pitched the Saints past Geneva (scores of 6-0 and 5-2) in both the 2011 and 2010 regional title games.
"It'll be very nice not to have to see him again," said Hahn. "But we know that we'll still see good pitching."
Is this the year the Vikings make a long postseason run?
"I hope so," said Hahn.
Another local team with high hopes is second-seeded St. Charles North, which begins regional action Wednesday against either No. 18 West Chicago or No. 15 Conant at York.
"I like where we're at," said North Stars coach Todd Genke, whose team is aiming at its fourth regional crown since 2007. "We've got three or four pitchers that we can run out there."
Eastern Illinois-bound Jake Johansmeier, Carl Formento, and Ankur Shah will be counted on for their pitching prowess.
The two big question marks facing St. Charles North are — can catchers Ryan Thomas and Nick Gilmore bounce back from late-season injuries and will the North Stars score enough runs?
"We're a little banged up," said Genke. "We're scuffling a little bit at the plate but I'm feeling pretty confident that we'll hit well."
With a first-round win, the North Stars will advance to Saturday's regional title game against either No. 6 York or No. 10 Schaumburg.
The host Dukes are paced by 3-year varsity veteran Jake Rzeszutko and ace hurler Greg Castello, who tossed a no-hitter against Waubonsie Valley earlier this season.
Meanwhile, Schaumburg (20-13) may be the team nobody wants to face. Winners of 7 of their last 8 games, the Saxons are led by Evansville-bound pitcher Pat Bellinger.
In addition, the Saxons are hoping to postpone the impending retirement plan of legendary coach Paul Groot (606 career victories) for as long as possible.
UEC River champion St. Charles East (22-10) will play host to another legitimate threat in No. 14 Hoffman Estates (17-16) Wednesday.
Winners of 8 of their last 10, the Hawks feature Holy Cross-bound Kevin Grudzinski (SS/P), Truman State recruit Mark Roberts (2B/P), and junior Jimmy Ward (P).
Coach Len Asquini, who guided the Saints to the state title in 1999, leans heavily on a pitching staff that includes Kyle Manske (7-1), Luke Ludke, Nick Huskisson and closer Johnny Hondlik.
Manske is fresh from a complete-game effort during the Saints' 6-2 conference title-clinching win over St. Charles North last Thursday.
"It bodes well for what we've got coming up," said Asquini. "Hopefully it's a good springboard for us going into the tournament."
If the Saints beat Hoffman Estates, they'll meet either No. 7 Glenbard North or No. 11 Glenbard East in Saturday's regional championship.
Don't sleep on Batavia (17-16), either.
The 12th-seeded Bulldogs, who face No. 5 Addison Trail Thursday at Wheaton North, are capable of pulling off a few upsets, especially if Austin Higgins continues his superb pitching.
Higgins, who tossed a 2-hitter in a 1-0 loss to St. Charles North two weeks ago, went the distance last week for a win over Sycamore.
Every team could use a little good fortune along the way, as well.
"I remember when Jake Razo's ball hit off third base last year against Sycamore and scored 2 runs," said Aversa, whose team went on to edge the Spartans 2-1 in the regional championship.
Five victories later, the Knights walked off Silver Cross Field celebrating the program's first state baseball title.
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