There are headliners on every team.
For the Libertyville baseball team this season, junior pitchers Riley Gowens and Colin Fields have most often been in that role. The two have combined for 12 wins.
But what has put the Wildcats over the top, what has been the X-factor in a 28-win, conference championship season is depth, particularly on the 11-man pitching staff. After the juniors, Libertyville boasts a group of talented and grounded senior pitchers who have accepted their roles and have maximized their opportunities.
Caleb Haddon and Ben Land, relief pitchers known for their tricky curveball, have done that so well that they have both secured spots on a college roster for next season … at the same college. Haddon and Land will be pitching for Division III DePauw University in Indiana for the next four years.
"It's tough sometimes because everyone wants to be the guy, everyone wants to be the star pitcher, especially senior year," Land said. "But I think a lot of us older guys just want to win, too. So we're just doing whatever the team needs us to do.
"As a relief pitcher, my job is to be ready at any moment. Being the guy who is older, who the team can rely on makes me feel good and drives me."
Haddon and Land have combined for 7 wins. After Gowens and Fields, who pitched on varsity last year as sophomores, they have been used consistently along with fellow seniors Ryan Cote, Billy Krumm and Scott Hay.
"We all knew that those two guys (Gowens and Fields) were coming in high on the radar after last season. It was obvious that they were really good," Haddon said. "We (the senior pitchers) are all just trying to make the most of the time we do get. It's whatever we can do to help the team win games."
Haddon and Land have been working essentially a lifetime to make sure that they are ready for their chance on the mound. Both were born into baseball families.
Haddon's father Michael grew up in Chicago and played college baseball at Xavier and then UIC.
"My dad has wanted to share his baseball knowledge with me and pass down what he knows," Haddon said. "He was my coach for years. He coached me starting in T-ball when I was 5-years-old through travel ball all the way up until I was 14."
There is a history of coaching in Land's family, too.
His grandfather, Steve Land was the baseball coach at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1980s. His dad played baseball at DePauw, of all places. He met Land's mother there.
"We're just a big baseball family," Land said. "Growing up, my life was always baseball. It was always my favorite sport. I worked a lot on my mechanics when I was younger. My dad taught me a lot."
Land is excited to continue the family's baseball legacy at DePauw. He recently made his decision final after he was offered a spot on the baseball team.
"I've always been interested in DePauw and I've been there before because of my parents," Land said. "But after the last visit I took there, I really knew that I wanted to go. And getting to play baseball there is such a bonus."
It's also a bonus for Land and Haddon to be able to continue their baseball careers together at DePauw. It wasn't planned. Haddon committed much earlier than Land. But they both like the way it worked out.
"It's neat that we get to play a few more years together," said Haddon, who was looking for a smaller college and sent video to DePauw and heard back right away. "I know we're both really excited to help the team there as much as we can."
DePauw is currently 31-11 and earned an at-large bid into the NCAA Division III national tournament.
For now, though, Haddon and Land are focused on their unfinished business at Libertyville. They want to win some state tournament hardware this season.
The Wildcats are seeded second in the Glenbrook South sectional and will open the playoffs on Tuesday in the Highland Park regional against the winner of Monday's game between No. 18 Rolling Meadows and No. 15 Wheeling.
"Knowing that our high school careers are coming to an end, there is definitely emotion there. But at the same time, we all want to play three more weeks and reach the top so we need (to be focused)," Haddon said. "What we have going right now is really special. We want to keep it going."
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