It's been a Lucky 7 Season for the Grayslake North baseball team.
In their seventh varsity season, the Knights won their first outright Fox Valley Fox Division championship, after placing second the last two seasons.
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The title was clinched with authority on Wednesday with a 15-5 victory over Woodstock North. The Knights put themselves in a clinching position in the first place with an emotional sweep of crosstown rival Grayslake Central last weekend.
"This is uncharted water for us and the kids are excited," Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan said. "The games last weekend against Grayslake Central were definitely big for our program. Grayslake Central has won the conference title the last three years.
"It goes back to the old saying that to be the best you have to beat the best. Sweeping Grayslake Central was definitely a fitting way for us to take control."
Grayslake North went 11-6 in the Fox Valley, including 4-3 against teams in the larger Valley Division.
"We count all games in the Fox Valley, including crossovers so we knew we'd have to go 3-4 or 4-3 against the big boys and we did that," Strahan said. "We had a two-week stretch in which we were really swinging the bats well and averaging 10 or 11 runs a game. We put some really good games together."
Good games or bad, a few things never changed for Grayslake North this season.
The Knights could count on consistency out of Nick Carmody, Adam Gomski and Carl Russell.
"When we were stringing together a bunch of wins, we had innings where we were scoring five, six, seven, eight runs and we were getting contributions up and down the lineup," Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan said. "But we also had games where we cooled off and the guys who were still consistent were Nick, Adam and Carl."
Carmody, the Knights' leadoff hitter, is hitting .388 and getting on base more than half the time.
"He's done a great job of setting the table for us," Strahan said. "He's such a complete baseball player. And the thing that makes him so tough is that when one thing isn't working, he can adjust and evolve his game and do different things."
Gomski and Russell have been tough outs in the middle of the lineup. In fact, Russell is hitting .440 and has set the single-season school record for most RBI in a season with 33. Gomski is also one of the top hitters on the team and he serves as Grayslake North's ace pitcher as well.
How do you know when a freshman is ready for varsity?
When he's "tearing the cover off the ball at the sophomore level," which is what Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan says Merrick Gentile was doing.
So Strahan moved Gentile up about halfway through the season.
"Merrick really deserved to be on the varsity," Strahan said. "We knew he wouldn't be intimidated coming up as a freshman. He's a big, confident kid, as big and as strong as most of our varsity guys. And he's a competitor. We could really put him anywhere in the lineup."
Strahan raves about Gentile's quick hands and his superior hand-eye coordination, which helped him excel as the quarterback of the sophomore team last fall.
"He's going to be up for a spot on the varsity football team next year, too," Strahan said of Gentile. He's just a great athlete."
A lack of experience wasn't the only thing that hampered Round Lake during its 5-16 regular-season campaign.
The Panthers, who lost nine seniors from last year's team, got no help from their own field.
"We were able to practice on our infield only three times this season," Round Lake coach Ed Adamson said. "The infield grass and dirt is bad, we had water on the field. When we were finally able to get on the field, we were having to fit in games.
"Being so young, we had the kind of team this year that really needed practices outside, on the field, and we just didn't get much of that. That definitely hurt us in terms of our fielding and our defense. We made a lot of errors this year and gave other teams a lot of freebies."
Adamson is hoping that field conditions will be a non-issue by next season. Round Lake is looking into replacing the infield over the summer.
"We're hoping to get new infield dirt and really improve our field," Adamson said. "Our softball team recently got a new infield and they don't have to cancel many games or move their practices. That makes a huge difference. We need that. We re-did our mound recently and that's a lot better. We just need to keep making improvements to our facilities and hopefully we'll start to see improvements in our team."
All at once:
Round Lake knows a lot about streaks. Good and bad.
The Panthers began the season with a long string of losses. In fact, Round Lake had nothing but losses on its record until last week.
Then, the Panthers could do nothing but win.
Round Lake (5-16) got all five of its wins last week in winning five straight games. There were two wins over North Chicago and then three wins at the Lake Forest Academy Invite, which Round Lake won.
The Panthers got wins over Hammond (Ind.) Baptist, North Chicago and Lake Forest Academy.
"Last week was so good for our guys," Round Lake coach Ed Adamson said. "It takes a lot out of you to get pounded and lose every game. And it's hard to keep coming back out and trying your hardest. Not a lot of guys can do that, but our guys have done that this season and it was really nice to finally be rewarded for that."
One of the most satisfying wins for Round Lake was the Lake Forest Academy win. It came against a team that had 10-runned the Panthers earlier in the season.
"I just felt we finally looked like a baseball team in those games," Adamson said of the LFA Invite. "We played the way the teams that beat us do every day. I told our guys that the standard has been set now. Now, they know they can play like that. They just have to go out and do that every game."
Two players who shined during the Panthers' winning streak even more so than usual were Ryan Newman and Jalen Young, who have managed to hit .500 and .400 on the season, respectively.
"Those guys get pitched around a lot," Adamson said. "But when they do get a chance, they've been really solid. They get on base and that helps."
With the state tournament beginning next week, Vernon Hills seems to be peaking at just the right time.
Over their last 11 games, the Cougars have gone 9-2. It's quite a turnaround from their slow start.
"At one point, we were 6-11 and weren't playing well at all. I wasn't sure we'd even get to 10 wins," Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki said. "We were coming off such a good season last year that sometimes the expectations for the following year are so high and everyone expects you to hit the ground running. If that doesn't happen, there are a lot of questions.
"We had some long meetings, with long conversations and there were difficult decisions that had to be made. Guys were frustrated, we had to make changes. But eventually, we started to get more consistent and things started to come together for us."
Czarnecki altered his lineup and put some players in different roles. But one player who didn't need any tweaking was senior Tyler Feece. He's the Cougars' ace on the mound and is also one of the top hitters on the team.
"Being a pitcher, Tyler is able to understand what might be coming on certain counts and he can hit to all fields, so he really has flexibility at the plate," Czarnecki said. "He's such a confident player for us. He had such a big year last year and he's been able to build off of that.
Riding the rookie:
It might be a coincidence. But Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki doubts it.
Freshman Tommy Earhart was promoted to the varsity 11 games ago. The 15-14 Cougars, who got off to a sluggish start this season, are 9-2 over those games.
"We pulled up Tommy and then we started to make a turn," Czarnecki said. "He's definitely been a spark. There are times I've had to remind myself that he's still just a freshman."
Earhart's numbers aren't very freshman-like. He's hitting better than .300 and has struck out only 3 times in 37 at-bats."
Four Lake County teams received No. 1 seeds in the upcoming state tournament.
Mundelein is the No. 1 seed in the Class 4A Glenbrook North sectional and will open with either No. 7 Buffalo Grove or No. 16 Waukegan on Tuesday in the St. Viator regional.
Meanwhile, Grant is the No. 1 seed in the McHenry regional, which is part of the Huntley sectional. Last year, the Bulldogs, who will take on either No. 5 Round Lake or No. 4 McHenry on Wednesday, were placed in the same regional and wound up advancing downstate.
In Class 3A, Grayslake Central and Wauconda both earned No. 1 seeds. Grayslake Central, which is hosting the sectional, is No. 1 in the Lakes regional and will take on No. 5 North Chicago or No. 4 Johnsburg on Wednesday. Wauconda, which cruised through the North Suburban Prairie Division with a 12-0 record, is the No. 1 seed in the Fenton regional and will open with either No. 5 Northtown or No. 4 Fenton on Wednesday.
Besides Lakes, Carmel and Lake Zurich are also hosting regionals, where Carmel (No. 3) and Glenbrook North (No. 4) are the top seeds respectively.