Baseball: St. Charles East's Zitella enjoys big junior year, eyes bigger things ahead
Following a spring baseball season where he led the DuKane Conference in home runs, batting average and slugging percentage, some might think that St. Charles East's Jake Zitella is a finished product on the diamond.
Others, however, know differently.
In fact, the Saints' junior third baseman may just be scratching the surface of his abilities.
"In terms of his ceiling, I would say that he's not even close to it, really," Saints coach Len Asquini said of Zitella.
"That may be scary for our opponents, but it will be really fun to watch his growth and development during the next year."
Zitella, who batted .462 with 6 home runs and a 1.000 slugging percentage in DuKane Conference play while leading the Saints to the conference title (17-4 record), has been selected as Captain of the 2022 Daily Herald Fox All-Area Baseball Team.
Zitella wasted little time acclimating himself to DuKane Conference foes, going 4-for-4 with a double and game-winning 2-run home run during the Saints' 2-0 victory over eventual Class 4A sectional finalist Lake Park in early April.
The very next day, Zitella smacked another 2-run, opposite-field home run and another double during the Saints' 6-2 win over the Lancers.
Back-to-back days -- back-to-back home runs to right-center for the right-handed hitting Zitella.
All part of his plan heading into the season.
"The whole off-season, I focused on hitting 'oppo,'" said Zitella, who finished fifth in the conference with a .517 on-base percentage and 24 RBI. "I worked on hitting pitches on the outer half of the plate and putting the ball in play somewhere."
Zitella, who batted .395 overall, led the Saints in numerous offensive categories, including home runs (6), triples (2), extra-base hits (18), total bases (62), slugging percentage (.816), batting average with runners in scoring position (.522), and OPS (1.299).
"Jake was super solid for us," said Asquini, whose team finished with a 21-7 record. "He has tremendous power and can hit it anywhere from left field to right field. He's very aggressive and he has a very good understanding at the plate.
"He also is faster than people think -- he can really move. There were three or four times this season where he scored from first easily on a double in the gap."
Zitella, who went 4-for-7 with a 3-run home run and pair of doubles during the Saints' first two victories over Geneva, added to his numbers with a 3-for-4 day at the plate with a triple and 2 RBI in the series opener against Wheaton North, then belted a grand slam the next day during a 7-run seventh that helped his team clinch the conference crown with a 10-3 win over the Falcons.
"Winning conference was my favorite moment from a team standpoint," said Zitella. "Personally, my favorite moment came in our last game against Glenbard West when I tripled and scored on Seth's (Winkler) single to make it 1-0 in the fourth inning."
Despite all the memorable moments, Zitella came away unsatisfied.
"I put up a good season but feel I could have done better," said the University of Illinois commit. "I was out for the Batavia series with back fatigue after overswinging on a pitch during our first game against St. Charles North. But I felt pretty good against Wheaton North.
"I'm going to work to become a more consistent hitter, and I'd like to get a little faster."
Defensively, Zitella felt back at home playing third base after starting his sophomore campaign as the Saints' shortstop.
"It was my first year playing shortstop and it was challenging," said the 6-foot, 195-pounder. "I've played third base all my life. Everything happens so quickly at third base."
"You have to remember that we had no preseason last year," said Asquini. "Plus, his freshman season was wiped out (2020 season canceled due to COVID).
"He has a strong arm and quick reflexes. He's not afraid to be up in the grass (at third base)."
Zitella, who played hockey, basketball and soccer in his younger days, admits baseball has become his first love.
"There was a time when I wanted to quit baseball and play hockey, but my dad (Mark) wouldn't let me. He has been coaching me since I was little. He was hard on me when he needed to be, but he made me get back to work. I want to make him proud."
Asquini expects big things from Zitella in the future.
"Jake has a great attitude -- he's youthful and enthusiastic," said the coach. "He has great baseball instincts, and he plays a lot of baseball. He's not scared of working at it, and he also works hard in the classroom."
Zitella, who is the state's top-ranked third baseman in his 2023 class by Prep Baseball Report, will spend the summer playing for his travel team, Canes Illinois, before looking forward to his senior season -- and beyond.
"I want to make it a good senior year," he said. "I want to provide (retiring) Coach Asquini with one of the best years of his great career."
"Jake's got a chance to be drafted (MLB First-Year Player Draft) even next year," said Asquini. "He's on people's radars right now."
For Zitella, it would be a dream come true.
"I plan on trying to take it (baseball) as far as I can take it," he said.