It's been an off-season of change, change and more change for baseball teams in the North Suburban Conference.
"All together, these are huge changes happening in the same year," Lake Zurich baseball coach Rick Erickson said.
First, the conference itself changed. Gone is the old 14-team conference with two divisions: the Lake and the Prairie. Now, it's an eight-team league consisting of the seven former Lake Division teams (Stevenson, Libertyville, Warren, Lake Zurich, Mundelein, Lake Forest, Zion-Benton) plus Waukegan.
Then there's the new schedule. Instead of conference teams playing each other twice each season, once at home and once on the road, they will face each other in three-game series, just like many college teams do. Most coaches say there are pluses and minuses to both ways of scheduling. Of course, one of the biggest pluses is determining a clear-cut champion in each season series in conference play.
Finally, and perhaps the most radical change of all, is the new pitch count rule that has been mandated by the IHSA as of this season.
Teams must now log each and every pitch that their pitchers throw in games and then file that information with the IHSA. Then, future appearances for those pitchers are based off of those totals. Fewer pitches on one day means fewer days of required rest between the next appearance, and more pitches that would be allowed during that next appearance.
Conversely, more pitches on one day means more days of rest between appearances, and more days of rest before a high number of pitches is allowed again.
For example, according to the IHSA pitch count guidelines, a pitcher who throws 30 pitches in a day is eligible to pitch again after one day of rest. He would be allowed to throw up to 105 pitches in his next appearance.
A pitcher who throws 70 pitches in a day would be eligible to pitch again after three days of rest and would be eligible to throw 75 pitches. After four days of rest, that pitcher would be eligible to throw 105 pitches.
"I think with the pitch count rule, (the IHSA) is trying to do what is in the best interest of the kids," Mundelein coach Todd Parola said. "I think it's a good thing, a move in the right direction, to look after a kid's health and well-being."
But pitch counts in IHSA games can't control how a pitcher uses, or in some cases, overuses his arm in practices, showcases or off-season travel games.
"It used to be that after baseball season, a kid would put the ball down and not touch it for six months," Parola said. "Now, kids are playing year round. Kids never shut down now."
And when pitchers overuse their arms, that can lead to serious injuries and shorter careers.
"In terms of the pitch count rule, I don't think it changes much for teams in our conference. I think the coaches in our conference were already doing that kind of stuff anyway, in terms of managing and protecting their pitchers," Warren coach Clint Smothers said. "But in the summer, when kids go off to play (travel ball), you see all kinds of situations of kids pitching on Thursday, Saturday and then finishing games on Sundays. It's a lot."
Until pitchers can be protected year round, the pitch count rule may just end up being a nice idea in theory.
"I get the purpose of the pitch count rule, but I'm not sure it's really going to pay dividends because of what's happening in travel ball," Stevenson coach Pat Block said. "It's really going to take parents holding their kids' travel coaches responsible. That's why we talk to our parents about the pitch count rules so that they can see what we're doing for health purposes and we hope that they pass that along and the message gets to the travel coaches."
In the meantime, high school coaches are trying to navigate the very precise requirements for tracking pitch counts. Both teams have someone in the dugout counting pitches for each pitcher. After every two innings, those people meet up quickly to compare and agree on the numbers. The numbers are again compared after the game and then each team is responsible for inputting that data online, where each pitcher on every team in the state has a profile. The online program will then automatically compute when each pitcher is eligible to pitch again and how many pitches he is allowed.
The record-keeping can be tedious, as can conceiving a pitching rotation for a week's worth of games under the new rules. Add in the North Suburban Conference's new format that demands a competitive combination of pitchers for three consecutive crucial league games, and that can be a coaching brain teaser.
"The three-game series really changes the game this year, especially with the pitch count rule on top of it," Erickson said. "You're really going to see how deep teams are and how good they really are at pitching. In the past, you're thinking you could get through a two-game conference series with your top two or three pitchers. With a three-game series and the pitch count rule, you're maybe talking five or six pitchers that you need."
Conference series games in the North Suburban Conference run Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while Thursday and Saturday are used as make-up days for rainouts.
With a tight schedule that leaves little margin for error and requires nine more league games per team than in previous years, there are few opportunities for nonconference games. And if a nonconference game is schedule on a day that a conference game needs to be made up, that nonconference game is canceled and probably lost for the season.
Parola, who says he had been against the three-game series idea for years when the coaches used to discuss it in their meetings, says he doesn't like the lack of flexibility in the schedule.
"We lost a few really good (nonconference) games because we just don't have the room in our schedule anymore," Parola said. "At times in the past, we struggled to get in 12 conference games because of the weather. Now, we're going to have to get in 21.
"It's also going to be tough to get many practices in during the week because we're going to be playing so often. You like to have the chance to evaluate your players occasionally and work on what you need to get better at. That's going to be tougher to do. But who knows, maybe I'll like it. We'll have to see."
Block says he's already a big fan of the three-game series. He appreciates the competitive element of it.
"I love it," Block said. "It creates really good competition between teams. It stunk in years past to have splits (1-1 ties) between teams and not know who the real champion of the season series was. This creates an excitement of the best of three and I love that."
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw