Baseball: Busy schedule? You bet it is
Now high school baseball players know kind of what it's like to play in the major leagues.
With a condensed, 7-week season, teams that are trying to get their normal 30-plus games in are playing pro-type schedules, where nearly every day is game day.
Grayslake Central, for instance, had already played 15 games (and was 13-2) as of Tuesday, and is aiming to finish the regular season with 35 games.
"With no season last year, we made the choice that we were going to get our 35 games this year and that would mean playing games Tuesday through Saturday pretty much every week," Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen said. "We are trying to maximize opportunities to play games anytime we can. That's what our kids wanted, that's what our parents wanted, and I think the kids are really having fun with it. They appreciated getting the opportunity to play games."
The Rams typically have one practice day a week: Monday. Besides that, they may do quick walk-throughs before or after games when time allows.
"Does that hurt development, yes, a little," Whalen said. "We're not practicing as much as we normally would, so you expect to see more failures in games, because the kids are pretty much learning on the fly during games.
"For example, we've struggled executing in our bunt game, and we practice it when we can, but we're really not getting a lot of reps in, at least not as many as we normally would. The kids get reps in during games."
Not that Whalen is sweating it. He says that the lack of practice is worth the alternative.
"It's a challenge, but the reward is playing all these games and seeing the smiles on the faces of these kids who didn't even get a season last year," Whalen said. "It's about seeing parents at the games and seeing everyone have fun. That's what it's all about."
Lack of experience:
Most spring sports teams are suffering from a lack of varsity experience, due to the 2020 season last year being canceled by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Seniors who were brought up as sophomores may have a bit of experience.
Juniors only have experience if they were brought up as freshmen.
Shortstop Nate Mieszkowski of Grayslake Central is one of those seniors who was brought up as a sophomore, near the end of that season. He is the only player for the Rams who began this season with any kind of varsity experience.
"Nate is literally our only guy back. No pitchers back or anything," Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen said. "I'm sure a lot of teams have the same thing going on with no season last year. It's tough, but the great thing for us is how much of a leader Nate has been for us. It's meant a lot.
"Nate is a quite leader, but he has an impact offensively and defensively with his example and we go as he goes."
Mieszkowski, who leads Grayslake Central in RBI and home runs and is hitting near .500, is going to play next year at Division II Missouri Southern.
Part of the reason that Grayslake Central has overcome its lack of experience and rushed out to a 13-2 record through 15 games is that some younger players have played older than they are.
Junior Charlie Marisca has put up big numbers.
The lefty is hitting .515 on the season and has been a big presence behind the plate as the Rams' starting catcher.
"He's one of the better hitters in Lake County and one of the better catchers in Lake County," Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen said. "He's been a rock behind the plate for us and a defensive presence. His play has really helped us."
Marisca has already verbally committed to Missouri. He did so prior to his sophomore year.
Another junior stepping up for Grayslake Central is Brendan Whalen who is hitting .400 and had 2 home runs last week against Richmond-Burton, including a grand slam.
In fact, in that Richmond-Burton game, Whalen and Marisca both had grand slams, and in the same inning.
"Rarely do you see two grand slams in the same game," Troy Whalen said. "But almost never do you see two grand slams in the same inning. That was pretty amazing."
Two other young guns getting the job done for the Rams are Chris Rogers and Colin Kornit, both sophomore left-handed pitchers
who boast earned run averages that are less than a 2.0.
Libertyville might have been 10-5 as of Wednesday, but it's been a slow go at times.
"We got off to a slow start," Libertyville coach Matt Thompson said. "We've had some injuries and some guys slowly getting into the season."
Outfielder Connor Dickson has had to spend some time recovering from football season, in which he got a bit banged up. And pitcher Connor Lockwood began the season shelved for two weeks while in quarantine.
"We had to bring (Lockwood) back to the mound really slow," Thompson said. "In his first outing, he got one or two innings, then in his second, we limited him to about 40 pitches, then he was ready."
In his third outing last week, Lockwood helped Libertyville defeat previously undefeated Mundelein, 3-1. Lockwood, a three-year starter who will be playing at Valparaiso next year, had 6 strikeouts and no walks against Mundelein.
"He is comfortable on the mound and he can throw three pitches for strikes," Thompson said of Lockwood. "We were really missing his leadership early on. Since he's been back and helping out and being vocal in the bullpen, our young pitchers have been doing much better. He talks to them about the game and about pitching and it's great to use him as an example. When he gets out of tough innings, it's great to have our young pitchers watch that."
A lack of excitement hasn't been an issue at Libertyville games this season.
The Wildcats have had four games decided in the final inning and have won three of them.
The first weekend of the season, Libertyville got a 12th-inning victory over McHenry on a walk-off grand slam by catcher Gavin Bennett, who will be playing at Illinois next year.
In a ninth-inning win against Lake Zurich, first baseman Cole Collins had a walk-off home run.
The Wildcats also won a one-run game against Prairie Ridge earlier in the season.
"One thing I talk about with the kids is that it's good to be in these tight games with the pressure on," Libertyville coach Matt Thompson said. "That's what happens in the playoffs or in conference games in which we're competing to win the league. It's good to have those experiences."