After thrilling finishes to their high school baseball careers, it is worth remembering the key moments that came at the beginning for Barrington's Ryan Lidge and Rolling Meadows' Matt Dennis.
Those beginnings took the pair to today, and their introduction as co-captains of the Daily Herald's Northwest all-area baseball team.
Contact information ( * required )
The duo is coming off sensational seasons in which they led their teams to their respective divisional titles and a showdown in the Mid-Suburban League title game, where Dennis and his Mustangs outlasted Lidge and the Broncos.
Both are headed off to Division I colleges next year, with Dennis headed to Bradley and Lidge to Notre Dame.
Both Lidge and Dennis, along with their coaches Jim Lindeman of Rolling Meadows and Pat Wire of Barrington, look back at the end of the players' sophomore years as pivotal moments in their development.
Lindeman, who brought Dennis up to pitch on the varsity at the start of Dennis' sophomore year, watched how Dennis developed after that season.
"He just got bigger and stronger," Lindeman said. "He had a goal in mind, and that was to play Division I baseball in college. So he hit the weights hard, and it paid off huge for him. He gained 5-7 miles on his fastball."
Dennis, who has been clocked at 89 mph and also has a wicked curveball, said he knew how important that weight training was.
"He (Lindeman) said to hit the weights," Dennis said. "I was a power pitcher was I was younger. And when I played as a sophomore, I wasn't as much as power pitcher. I needed to get more velocity. So I worked out, especially last year. And I got up to where I wanted to be."
Wire saw Lidge's ability when Wire began coaching him on the American Legion team the summer after Lidge's sophomore year. But Lidge was also not where he wanted to be, especially when he began his Legion season by striking out 10 of the first 11 times he came to the plate.
"I had a long talk with coach Wire," Lidge said. "He said that I needed to focus harder and dedicate myself to the game. After that I became very honest with myself and I knew what I had to do to get it done."
Wire saw a huge change in Lidge.
"He started to begin to build his confidence not only as a player but as a leader," Wire said. "He has always set the tone as a receiver and as someone who could control the running game."
Barrington pitcher Wyatt Trautwein credited Lidge with helping him maintain focus on the batter when there were runners on base.
"I never worried when there were guys on,"Trautwein said. "Ryan would keep a good eye on them for me so I could concentrate on the batter."
Lidge loved when teams tried to run on him.
"I love being behind the plate," Lidge said. "The whole game is in front of me."
While teams feared to run on Lidge, they also had difficulty when they came to the plate against Dennis.
When he threw, the 6-foot-2 Dennis had complete command of the strike zone. He struck out 98 this season in 682⁄3 innings pitched. That gives him just under 200 strikeouts in his varsity career.
"He is the best strikeout pitcher we have had," said Lindeman, who just completed his 13th season at the helm at Rolling Meadows. "And I don't ever remember a pitcher having a season who was so dominant in conference play."
Mike Dolan, who caught Dennis all year and is headed to play at Rollins next year, was impressed with Dennis' control.
"He was always around the plate," Dolan said. "And he was able to keep hitters off balance with his pitches."
Dennis was 7-0 in conference action and 8-1 overall with a 1.83 ERA. Besides the victory in the MSL title game, he also had a 16-strikeout performance against Buffalo Grove. Dennis just allowed his conference opponents to hit a .164 against him.
"He is one of the best that has come through here," said Lindeman, who also had all-area pitchers Matt Hendricks and Brian Porter. "Matt is a gamer. He is so tough.:
Dennis also played third, first and the outfield on the days when he was not on the mound. He hit .273 with 5 home runs and 20 RBI.
"It was great season for myself and our team," Dennis said. "I just wished we could have gone further in the playoffs."
Lidge also had a career year this season. He came into this season after hitting just 2 home runs last year. He began to work out for his older brother Mike, who is a strength and condition coach for the San Francisco Giants, helping him add 20 pounds of muscle as he strengthened his 6-foot-2 frame to 210 pounds.
"He really helped me gain my power," Lidge said. "Last year I was hitting one-hoppers to fence or having the ball caught deep in the outfield. This year the ball jumped off my bat."
And jump it did, to the tune of 8 home runs with 8 doubles along with 38 RBI. He had a batting average of .381 and a slugging percentage that was near the stratosphere at .711.
"He is such a great kid," said Wire, "on and off the field. He is charismatic and just an outstanding player."
Dennis and Lidge have had the opportunity to play together the past two summers on travel teams. Last year the two combined and played for the Illinois Patriots."
"It was a pleasure throwing to him," Dennis said. "He is so comfortable back there and frames my pitches well."
Lidge also enjoyed playing with Dennis.
"He is one of the best pitchers I have caught," Lidge said. "His fastball blows people away. His curve used to be a bit loopy at times. But last summer, I could see how much he worked on it because it dropped more sharply."
The pair faced each other just once this season. And it came out a draw, with Lidge going 1-for-4 with 2 RBI.
"I spent lots of time with my coach trying to figure out how to throw to him," Dennis said. "He looks invincible at the plate. It was really hard to come up with a game plan. I just tried to just change speeds and locations on him."
Lidge found it equally difficult.
"It was pretty cool facing him," Lidge said. "I knew what he had, but that didn't make it an easier. And he threw me a curve that was like a college curveball. It had been a long time since I had seen one like that."
Lidge, who has drawn some interest from major league scouts, has made it pretty clear that college is a priority to him.
So for both him and Dennis, it appears that there will be more new beginnings for the two of them to cope with this fall.