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Grayslake North hoping for offense to return

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Attention hits and runs: Grayslake North would like its offense back.

The Knights have been searching for their offense for most of the season. For some reason, the hits and runs have been tough to come by.

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Over the last two weeks, Grayslake North has been averaging only about 3 runs per game. And over that time, the Knights have been shut out four times in eight games.

"We've been pitching really well, defensively we're picking it up, we're just really struggling at the plate," Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan said. "We struggle to get kids in scoring position, and when we do get that, we struggle to get the big hit to drive in runs.

"I think the kids are putting too much pressure on themselves. They're thinking, 'I have to get a hit here, I have to get a hit here,' instead of just letting the game come to them and hitting the ball where it's pitched. And when one kid goes up there and can't do it, the next kid seems to feel even more pressure."

Short of bringing in a Zenmaster, Strahan is doing everything he can think of to ease his players' frustrations and stressers at the plate.

"We've talked a lot about the mental aspects and their mental approach," Strahan said. "We're also telling the guys to go back to a time when (hitting) was fun. Go back to when it was simple. All you do is 'See ball, hit ball.'"

Pitcher perfect:

As much as the offense has struggled at Grayslake North, the pitching has flourished.

Senior Andrew Mikusa and junior Dom DiProva almost couldn't be any more spot on. The two lefties are carrying ridiculously low earned run averages: Mikusa at around 0.67 and DiProva at around 1.01.

"They have been as close to dominant as we've seen at Grayslake North," Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan said. "They are just pitching so well and with a lot of confidence right now."

Racy return:

Giddy with excitement about finally getting clearance to play ball, Lake Zurich infielder Joey Holtz almost forgot what sport he plays.

For a minute there, it seemed like track was his thing.

"He's so excited to be back that in practice the other day, Joey wanted to race people to prove that he is OK," Lake Zurich coach Chuck Gandolfi said. "His speed is actually pretty good. It's his agility that's still a little rusty."

Holtz has missed more than a month of the season so far in order to recover from knee surgery that he had in November after a serious football injury. He's been back a week or so and now has a few starts under his belt, at second base and at designated hitter.

"He's come back pretty fast," Gandolfi said. "It's been about five months and usually that's a nine-month recovery. But Joey is such a gifted athlete that he's got pretty much full strength back already and he's already swinging the bat well."

Holtz, a key hitter for the Bears last year who drove in more than 20 runs, has had a couple of multiple-hit games already. He had 2 hits against both Libertyville and Grant.

"He's got that experience from last year and to get that back in the lineup is big for us," Gandolfi said. "Joey is going to help us a lot, especially as he gets all of his agility back."

Sam, I am:

Pitching consistency has been a problem for Lake Zurich this season.

Except at the top.

Junior Sam Zoibi has given the Bears some of their most steady outings on the mound. And that's propelled him into the role of the ace.

In one of Zoibi's most recent starts, he shut out Lake Forest.

"Some of our pitchers have had flashes of pitching really well, and then they struggle. Sam has really stepped up to be our No. 1 pitcher because he is pretty consistent," Lake Zurich coach Chuck Gandolfi said. "I like that he really goes after hitters. When he's in the strike zone, he's really tough."

One streak, two streak:

Grayslake Central gets stuck in a groove sometimes.

The Rams were in the midst of a four-game winning streak earlier this week. Before that, they lost five games in a row, the most in the 12-year tenure of head coach Troy Whalen.

"During that losing streak, it was Murphy's Law. What could go wrong did," Whalen said. "We had (senior outfielder) Matt Loeffl out with an ankle sprain, it seemed like we had a bunch of bad hops go against us, we couldn't get the clutch hits when we needed them and we were seeing some really good competition.

"It was a rough 10 to 12 days in Ramland."

But Whalen says he learned all that he needs to know about his players during those frustrating five losses.

"Our kids showed that they are so resilient," Whalen said. "They just kept working and kept their heads up and then we went on that four-game winning streak. It was a good lesson for them."

Work horse:

Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen has been forced to lay down the law with sophomore catcher Sam Nozicka.

Stop working quite so hard…or else.

"Sam is such a hard worker and he's always wanting to put in the time to get better but lately I've had to tell him to back off a little bit," Whalen said. "It's been like, "Dude, you need to give your body a rest."

Lately, Whalen has been seeing Nozicka every Sunday at the football field playing long toss. This was after Nozicka had spent every day that week catching for the Rams.

"I guess it's kind of a nice problem to have in this day of Xbox and kids sitting around all the time. Sam is just so different. He's the equivalent of a gym rat. He wants to be great and he's willing to put the time in. Not every kid has that."

Nozicka has worked himself into a pretty good position. Whalen thinks he's already made himself into one of the top prospects for the class of 2016.

"Sam has a great ability to neutralize an opponent's running game and he is so good at blocking the baseball," Whalen said. "I can't tell you how many runs he's saved on wild pitches with runners on third. It's gotten to the point where we almost take that for granted. The contributions we're getting from Sam defensively this year have been outstanding."

Nozicka is getting his opportunities behind the plate because Whalen was able to move longtime catcher Freddie Landers to shortstop to fill a void there. Landers had been the Rams' catcher the previous two seasons but is flourishing in the infield.

"Sam gave us the luxury to be able to move Freddie to shortstop and that move has helped us, too," Whalen said. "Freddie has been such an important player to us over the years and with the season coming to an end, I don't even want to think about the last time I get to coach him."

Big rotation:

While trying to solve his team's four-game losing streak last week, Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen was willing to try just about anything.

So against Crystal Lake Central last weekend, he started fiddling with the lineup and the rotations. Before he knew it, he had entered 24 different players into the game.

"That's the most we've ever used in a game," Whalen said. "Usually, we're at 13 or 14 guys per game. But we were just looking for a spark and wanted to get some other guys opportunities. We had pinch runners and courtesy runners and pinch hitters. We used four pitchers. I probably violated some substitution policy, but the ump didn't seem to notice."

One player who took full advantage of his newfound opportunities was senior Drew Garbett, who came back to baseball this season after a two-year break in which he did track and lacrosse.

"Drew has worked so hard and last weekend, he got his first varsity start," Whalen said. "He was at DH and he ended up getting the game-winning hit in the eighth on a 2-run double.

"It was so nice to see because Drew is so vocal on the bench even when he's not in the games. He's always found a way to make a positive impact. Last weekend, he also found a way to really impact the game. It's great to have seniors get a (highlight) like that."

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