Colton Wagner did more than just return to high school baseball for Lake Zurich after missing the entire regular season last year due to knee surgery.
On Friday, he planted his spikes on what now resembles a section of baseball paradise.
"It's gorgeous, especially compared to the chain-link fence that used to be behind home plate," Wagner, a senior catcher, said of Lake Zurich's newly renovated diamond, which includes landscaping bricks behind home plate and new, adjoining, taut netting. "It actually looks like a baseball field, (like at) Libertyville and Stevenson. We're starting to fit in with the conference."
Prettier yet for Lake Zurich was its come-from-behind, 12-7 win over Wauconda in a North Suburban Conference crossover that marked the first game played on the Bears' new-look field.
Wagner supplied the power for Lake Zurich (6-4), going 2-for-4 with a two-run homer (his second of the season) to right-center and two-run triple that hit the top of the fence in center field. Steven Elrod was 3-for-4 with a double and two-run single that put the Bears up 6-5 in the fourth inning. Wauconda (1-7) couldn't retire Lake Zurich's Nick Jones, who was 2-for-2 with an RBI double, run-scoring single and 2 walks. Jones was also hit by a pitch.
"It was a rough start, but it's not always necessarily how you start; it's how you finish that wins games," said Wagner, who tore his left ACL during the 2012 football season, costing him his junior baseball campaign. "Being down makes the team focus a little more. Sometimes when you get up early, you get a little lackadaisical at times."
With the wind blowing out, Wauconda took advantage early. The Bulldogs jumped out to a lead in the first inning after two were out, as Joey Lovelle and Ben Peterson belted back-to-back homers off Bears sophomore starter Austin Wells. The home runs were the first of the season for the Bulldogs.
Wauconda added an unearned run in the second, after Collin Shrader doubled with two out, and went up 5-0 in the third thanks to Mitchell Sharkey's RBI fielder's choice and Brian Malisheski's run-scoring double.
"We started off strong and were playing good defense, but (Lake Zurich) was just smacking the ball around," Lovelle said. "There really wasn't much we could do about that."
Lake Zurich scored four times in its half of the third to pull within a run. Jones smoked a double into left-center to put the hosts on the board, Wagner followed with his homer, and Derek Kornfeind's RBI single got the Bears within 5-4.
"Our hitters were a little too anxious at the beginning," Lake Zurich coach Chuck Gandolfi said. "They thought they were going to have a field day. But they got a little bit refocused after the first couple of innings. They did a nice job."
Malisheski delivered again in the fifth. His two-out single scored his younger brother Kevin Malisheski (2-for-4), who had doubled with one out, tying the score at 6-6.
"I felt the whole game, whether we were up or down, the kids were really into the game," Wauconda coach Bill Sliker said. "They were being good teammates, and they were supporting each other until the very final out. That's what we keep preaching."
Lake Zurich took the lead for good with a four-run fifth that included Jones' opposite-field single to right and Wagner's triple with two men on.
Little righty DJ Postilion earned the win, working 2 2/3 innings in relief. Steven Vanstedum was 2-for-3 for the Bears, while Danny Neises and Sam Warady each contributed a single and an RBI.
Wauconda, which graduated its entire starting lineup from last season's team that went undefeated in the NSC Prairie Division, is seeking confidence. And the Bulldogs might gotten some after pounding out 10 hits and playing competitively against one of the conference's better programs. Jake Grobelny had one of the visitors' four doubles.
"(Confidence) is the most important thing now," Lovelle said. "We're young. A lot of these guys didn't play last year. We're just trying to get things going and trying to mesh."