What are the signs of a good team?
Well, some good signs, for starters.
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The Wauconda baseball team put up two signs at its field in recent weeks, both of which signify, in their own ways, success and prosperity. The latest one is a biggie, and has become the team's pride and joy.
On Tuesday, the Bulldogs closed out their dominant run through the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division with a perfect 12-0 record, a feat that head coach Bill Sliker believes has never been done before in either the Prairie Division or the Lake Division. After defeating visiting Antioch 13-5 for that precious 12th win, the players were presented with a gift that perfectly captured the moment.
"My dad (John) called me over to the fence and gave me this sign that was all rolled up," Wauconda senior pitcher and second baseman Jeff Lindberg said. "In the background, there's a baseball and it says in purple and gold writing, '2013 NSC Prairie Division Champions 12-0.' I had no idea he was going to do something like that. He definitely got me. And luckily, we won (Tuesday's game against Antioch) to go 12-0 like the sign says."
The Bulldogs, who dropped Thursday's North Suburban Conference championship game at Lake Division winner Mundelein 5-1 to fall to 17-6 overall, stayed on the field to take picture after picture in front of the sign -- so many of them, in fact, that they were a bit late to their own sports awards banquet that night. No one wanted to leave the field, or the sign, which is now secured by zip-ties to the left-field fence, right under the scoreboard.
The sign's new home is a short distance from another sign that reminds the Bulldogs of what started it all: this three-year run that now includes two Prairie Division titles (the Bulldogs won their first title in more than 10 years in 2011), a second-place finish last year with a 9-3 record and a first-ever trip downstate in last season's summer state baseball tournament.
There is a "Go Bulldogs" sign that now hangs in centerfield. Recently discovered in storage, it was brought to every game when the current seniors were rolling up win after win on the travel circuit as youth players. Eight of the Bulldogs' current starters (Lindberg, Brandon Gibis, Ryan Gick, Bruce Pearl, Nate Sarich, Austin Piekarski, Austin Swenson and Luke Kenny) have been playing baseball together every year since they were 10 years old, and they say it's no coincidence they've had such high levels of success in high school.
"I think a big part of our success is the fact that we've played together for so long," said Gibis, a top pitcher and the starting shortstop for the Bulldogs. "I remember when we went to Cooperstown when we were like 12 years old and we played in this tournament with probably 100 other teams and we stayed in the barracks and we visited the Hall of Fame. We went on a lot of trips like that and played a lot of baseball together.
"There are always (high school) teams out there that have had guys grow up playing together. But I think it's rare to have a majority of your starters play together as long as we have. We're all such good friends and there's a chemistry there. It's made a huge impact on our team in high school."
Gibis himself has impacted the program in recent years like no other. Brought up to the varsity as a sophomore, he is the only player to be a full-time starter on both the 2011 and 2013 division championship teams.
"We have a lot of guys who are very important to our team this year, but Brandon has been there all three years and I think it shows in his confidence, in the way he stands on the mound or approaches his at-bats," Sliker said. "He's a very talented player with a lot of tools and he just loves to play baseball. He's ready to go every day."
This season, Gibis is 5-1 on the mound and responsible for four of the Bulldogs' 12 division wins. He also is among the team leaders in batting average with a .460.
"I'm not the most vocal leader, but I try to lead by example with my work ethic," said Gibis, who will be playing baseball next season at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin. "I worked really hard during the off-season. I did P90X (extreme home workouts) and I did a lot of weightlifting and I did a lot of work on my hitting and my pitching and I think the other guys picked up on that. Other guys see that and they want to work hard and succeed too, and I think that brings up the morale of the entire team."
Morale within the Wauconda athletic department can be tough to manage sometimes. Titles and championships don't pile up there as frequently as they do at some schools.
That's what has made the baseball team's run extra special. Its consistent level of success over the last three years has been a source of powerful pride throughout a school that is often trying to shed its "little guy" image.
"We've always been the underdogs," said Lindberg, who will play baseball next year at Trinity International in Deerfield. "I think when we made our run downstate last summer and we beat some very good teams, that really boosted our confidence and made us believe in ourselves even more.
"Going undefeated in the division is a great way for the seniors to go out, and leaving that sign out there is a great way for people to remember us."
But the division title sign and the "Go Bulldogs" sign aren't the only sign the seniors want to leave. The state tournament is coming up and that means there are more titles up for grabs.
"We're out to get more signs. We think we can compete with anyone. Our expectations are high," Lindberg said. "I can't wait to see what happens next. Maybe we can fill the entire outfield."