Experience and talent raised the expectations for Northbrook and Wheaton during this American Legion baseball season.
Both programs have been able to deliver on those expectations by reaching the state tournament, which starts today and runs through Saturday in downstate Mattoon. Northbrook (42-8) won the Cook County title for the first time in 21 years and Wheaton (29-10) won the Second Division crown for the second time in three seasons.
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They are part of a strong six-team field in the double-elimination tournament at Grimes Field. Northbrook faces Fifth Division champion Fairview Heights (29-9) at noon, Wheaton plays Fourth Division champ Danville (27-12) at 3:30 p.m. and Third Division champion Moline (39-6) meets Mattoon (21-19) at 7 p.m.
Northbrook has a veteran team led by former Glenbrook North star shortstop Brett Synek, who had a record-setting spring at powerful Oakton Community College, and capped an undefeated run through the Cook County tourney with a win over Arlington.
"This team trusts each other so much and we have good chemistry out there," Synek said after Northbrook beat defending Cook County champion Elk Grove. "With our team we know we're going to grind it out and outwork our opponent nine of 10 times. This team's special."
Hard-throwing right-hander and Wheeling graduate Matt Hart, who pitched this spring at Illinois Wesleyan, is part of a talented pitching staff that includes Cook County tourney MVP Henry Erickson, John Boidanis and Wheeling products Bubba Bendewald, Nick Ricciardi and Angelo Deblasio. Chad Bruce is another big offensive contributor with former Wheeling infielder Kalvin Thong, a two-time all-conference pick, and Wheeling senior first baseman David Shapiro.
"We're just kind of rolling along and making all the adjustments to everyone else," said Northbrook coach Mitch Stewart during the County tourney. "We told these guys they have a chance to be part of the best team you've ever been on in your life and we're not done yet."
Wheaton coach Jerry Miller has the core of a group that won the Junior Legion state title two years ago.
"Pitching and defense has gotten us here," Miller said of a team with a sub-2.00 ERA, "and our hitting has come around lately."
Ace righty Andrew Mamlic has a 0.00 ERA and has allowed only 3 earned runs in 59 innings with 120 strikeouts en route to an 8-0 record. Mamlic, who went to Wheaton North, pitched for the University of Illinois club team this spring but plans to try to make the varsity team again as he's grown three inches since last year and Miller said he was clocked at 90 mph earlier this month.
Ed Norris (5-1), Justin Harrington, Sam Nafziger, Johnny Schmitz and Lake Bachar are also a big part of the pitching success. One of the key hitters is 6-foot-4, 225-pound first baseman-outfielder-designated hitter Charlie McGinnis, who didn't play at Wheaton North but got a 60-percent scholarship to NAIA power South Carolina-Beaufort with his success with the Team Illinois Baseball Academy.
"He plays great defense and he's a pleasure to have on this team," Miller said.
Second Division MVP Ryan Gallagher, catcher Mike Rostine, infielders Colin Ford, Eric Bacon and Bryan Polowy, first baseman-designated hitter Tate Fritz and outfielder Jake Schieber have also been key parts of Wheaton's success.
Wheaton could get a chance to avenge 4-3 and 3-2 losses to Northbrook in the second round. Moline has five players, including Division MVP Tim Wages, who were part of its team which reached the American Legion World Series two years ago.