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updated: 8/14/2012 10:40 PM

LZ's Drago drums up a baseball future at Illinois

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The pitches come at him a little faster these days, and he still whistles them.

These aren't the hanging breaking balls that grandma used to toss.

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"She (threw) more of an Eephus," Anthony Drago said with a laugh. "She'd just lob it in there."

Drago is no longer the little boy who used to rope Wiffle balls thrown by his baby-sitting grandmother in the back yard of her and her husband's Chicago home, while his parents worked.

Now a sturdy 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, he begins his senior year at Lake Zurich next week. As proof that all that hitting as a toddler wasn't just to entertain his grandma, the hard-hitting catcher recently gave a verbal commitment to play baseball for the University of Illinois.

You can bet grandma (and grandpa), now living in Florida, are particularly proud.

"That's where it all started," Drago said of his Wiffle ball-hitting days in his grandma and grandpa's back yard. "We always reflect on it. We always have fun with it."

Fun for Lake Zurich baseball coach Gary Simon was watching Drago become one of his team's best hitters by season's end last spring.

"He's a real power hitter," said Simon, noting Drago bulked up significantly last winter. "He had a slow start on the season because he was out ahead of everything. But he hit some howitzer shots."

The lefty-hitting Drago finished the season with a .325 batting average for the Bears. His 14 extra-base hits included 3 homers. Behind the plate, he displayed a strong arm and quick release, Simon said.

Then this summer, Drago continued raking.

"It was a phenomenal summer," he said.

His highlight had to be while he and his Top Tier travel teammates were playing in the National Amateur Baseball Federation's High School 17-and-Under World Series in Knoxville, Tenn., in late July. After going 10-for-20 with a homer, double and 6 walks, he was named MVP.

Top Tier topped every team in the tournament, going 7-0.

"When they announced the awards at the conclusion of the championship game, I was pretty surprised to hear I was named MVP," Drago said. "But it was pretty cool. I didn't realize at the time I was having that good of a week. It just seemed normal. We were winning. Everybody was hitting."

Back on July 1, the first day that he was eligible to be contacted by college coaches, Drago was in Georgia with Top Tier when he said he received a phone call at 8 a.m. from Illinois assistant coach Eric Snider.

When Drago returned home, he visited U of I's campus in Champaign with his dad, Tony, and got a tour of the campus as well as the baseball team's facilities.

After a second visit, this time with his mother, Kristen, Drago knew he would be declining scholarship offers from Villanova and Tennessee.

"Once (Illinois) showed her all the places I'd be studying, she was locked in," Drago said. "I was locked in."

"(Head) coach (Dan) Hartleb and Coach Snider are really good guys," he added. "They showed that they care about you and they want to improve everybody."

Simon knows the Illini is getting more than a kid who can catch, play first base and produce on the field. The Big Ten school is getting a leader.

"He's just a great kid," Simon said. "He'd do anything you'd ask him to do. He worked hard every day. If I told him to go off to the side with (another catcher) and go through the series of catching drills, I could count on him to do it."

Drago plans to study hospitality management at Illinois with plans of opening his own restaurant some day.

At Lake Zurich, he said he's known to spend lots of time in the culinary room.

"I'm very fond of (cooking)," said Drago, who joked he must eat a dozen eggs a day. "I've gathered a very strong liking for baking. I couldn't tell you why. I got a couple of buddies that I cook with.

"We're top-notch," he added with a laugh.

He's tops on the baseball field, too.

jaguilar@dailyherald.com

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