High school baseball is back this spring — with a complete schedule of games.
Due to the pandemic, the past two seasons have been adversely affected.
In 2020, the entire season was lost to COVID-19.
Last year, the state tournament returned following a shortened, condensed regular season.
Players, coaches, umpires — and even sports writers hope for a return to normalcy this season.
“We are grateful to be back with a full schedule,” said Streamwood coach Dan Jennings. “We are lucky to have this game and now we know what it is like when it is taken away.”
“It’s no longer a sprint to the finish line — it’s a marathon,” said Bartlett coach Christopher Baum.
A full season has its benefits.
“Getting back to a more “normal” is something that all our players want, and from a coaching perspective, it will give us more time to see what each player can do,” said South Elgin coach Jim Kating.
The storylines are plentiful, as area teams return to the diamond.
Several races figure to heat up over the next couple months — none more so than the highly competitive DuKane Conference and Fox Valley Conference.
In the DuKane, perennial power St. Charles North aims for its third consecutive conference crown following a 29-4 season that included its ninth Class 4A regional title.
What are the North Stars’ biggest question marks?
“Replacing all-stater and Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year Nick DeMarco’s bat, glove, arm and leadership,” said North Stars coach Todd Genke.
DeMarco, a 4-year varsity standout, is now playing at Notre Dame.
Genke expects big contributions from another 4th-year player, senior catcher Jayden Lobliner (Kansas State) and all-conference senior outfielder Ryan Caccia.
“Jayden has excellent hands and arm behind the plate,” said Genke. “He’s a potential all-state backstop who will hit in the middle of our order.
“Ryan is one of the best athletes on the team. He’s a speedy outfielder with some pop who will be a table setter at the top of the lineup.”
St. Charles East, 24-10 last season, welcomes the return of pitchers Gavin Sitarz (Michigan State) and Nathan Hayes (North Dakota State-football), flanked by veteran infielders Carter Laskowski and Jake Zitella.
“We should be deep and strong on the mound,” said Saints coach Len Asquini. “The defense should be better and needs to be much better in order to compete for titles.”
Geneva, which placed 4th in the DuKane in 2021, features all-conference third baseman Blake Stempowski and pitcher Sean Kennedy.
“This group experienced the first regional championship at Geneva since 2008,” said Vikings coach Brad Wendell. “We hope we can build off that experience.”
Batavia coach Alex Beckmann knows it will be a dogfight — no pun intended.
“The DuKane is one of the best conferences in the state with multiple teams making deep playoff runs year after year,” said Beckmann. “Every series will be competitive.”
In the FVC, the road to the top often involves going through Huntley.
The Red Raiders, 32-3 overall and 16-2 atop the conference last year, return 16 players, including pitcher Adam Guazzo (Valpo), all-FVC selections Brandon Hanley and Ryan Kelly, and Division I verbally committed juniors Ryan Bakes (South Carolina), Brayden Bakes (Wichita State) and Andrew Ressler (Butler).
As a junior, Guazzo finished 5-1 with a 2.86 ERA, fanning 34 in 36 2/3 innings, while Hanley and Kelly hit .367 and .296, respectively, combining for 8 home runs and 62 RBI. Outfielders Ryan Bakes and Brayden Bakes each stole 12 bases in 2021, and Ressler went 3-2 on the mound with 46 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings.
“The FVC will once again be one of the toughest conferences in the state,” said Huntley coach Andy Jakubowski. “Five or six teams have a legitimate shot of winning the conference title.”
That group includes Jacobs, anchored by seniors Keegan Conners and Joey Fiorenza; Burlington Central, paced by pitchers Nick Carpenter and Michael Person; Cary-Grove, led by seniors Toby Splitt, Zack Labrec and Ben Hurt Haller; Crystal Lake South, fueled by senior pitcher Ysen Useni (UIC); and Hampshire, led by senior shortstop Matthew Karbowski and junior catcher Austin Leonard (.363, 3 HR, 30 RBI).
“We’re a young team with three seniors, 16 juniors and four sophomores,” said Hampshire coach Frank Simoncelli. “Our biggest question mark is pitching, but I think we can be very competitive.”
“We’ll need to stay focused and pay attention to details to be successful in the very tough FVC,” added Crystal Lake South coach Brian Bogda. “We know the games in the FVC will help prepare us for the postseason tournament.”
In the Upstate Eight, Bartlett aims to repeat last year’s history-making conference title-winning achievement.
“This year’s seniors will play with a bit of a chip on their shoulders,” said Baum. “They’re primed to defend that title.”
Seniors Kyle Swalley (1-0, 3.82 ERA) and Josh Loiacono (.308), and junior pitcher Daniel Krulak (6-0, 0.83 ERA, 46 Ks in 33 2/3 IP) highlight the Hawks’ roster.
South Elgin, led by seniors Ben Karpowicz, Jackson Bessette and Drew Piaskowy; Streamwood, anchored by all-UEC junior Nicholas Weaver (.433, 21 RBI); and Larkin, led by senior Javier Cervantes and juniors Elijah Holst and Anthony Mora, hope to contend.
“The defense will have to make the routine plays if we hope to compete for a top spot in the UEC,” said Kating.
“We hope to compete at a higher level in conference,” said Larkin coach Niko Morado.
The Metro Suburban Conference Red includes hopeful contenders Aurora Central Catholic, Aurora Christian and St. Edward.
“We have an experienced team that returns its entire infield,” said Chargers coach Sean Bieterman said of a group that includes CJ Cazares (Aurora University) and 4th-year shortstop Ryan Bohr. “We will be highly competitive in the area.”
Eagles coach Andy Zorger welcomes back seniors Jackson Robertson (.313, 3-3, 3.47 ERA), McCade Weber (.241, 2-2, 25 Ks) and junior Diego Huerta (.361), while all-conference selection Anthony Buono (.378, 2 HR, 23 RBI, 3-4 record as pitcher) headlines the list of Green Wave returnees.
Other area teams to watch include conference champions Kaneland (Interstate Eight) and Harvest Christian (Northeastern Athletic).
“We will look to remain competitive in our conference,” said Kaneland coach Brian Aversa. “We figure to fall somewhere in the top four with Sycamore, Morris and LaSalle-Peru.”
“Without question, this is the most talent and depth we’ve ever had,” said Lions coach Matt Ellett.
Marmion and West Aurora, aim to improve in the always-tough Chicago Catholic League and Suburban Prairie West, respectively.
“As always, pitching will be the key to our success given the strength of our schedule,” said Cadets coach Frank Chapman.
Blackhawks coach John Reeves expects big things from senior pitcher Matt Tarr (Kent State) and junior shortstop Ryan Niedzwiedz.
“Matt will be the team leader,” said Reeves. “Niedzwiedz is a name people should learn. He has been on the PBR (Prep Baseball Report) lists all winter.”
Despite being the smallest school in the conference, Elgin Academy hopes to climb back to the top of the Independent School League, anchored by sophomore catcher Ryan Zonts.
Fox baseball outlook
Top teams: Huntley, St. Charles North, St. Charles East, Geneva, Bartlett, Aurora Central Catholic, Jacobs, Harvest Christian, Kaneland, Burlington Central.
Top players: C.J. Cazares, sr., P/1B, Ryan Bohr, sr., SS, Aurora Central Catholic; Jackson Robertson, sr., P/1B, McCade Weber, sr., P/IF, Diego Huerta, jr., IF/P, Aurora Christian; Daniel Krulak, jr., P/1B, Frank Loiacono, sr., C/P, Kyle Swalley, sr., P/IF, Josh Schuberth, sr., 3B/P, Bartlett; Anthony Johnson, sr., P/1B/OF, Charlie Saul, sr., 1B/OF, Eric Gonzalez, sr., OF/P, Kevin Niedzwiedz, sr., IF, Batavia; Tyler Haines, sr., P, Aric Beaman, sr., 1B/P, Nick Carpenter, sr., P, Josh Rogde, sr., P, Michael Person, soph., P, Brady Gilroy, soph., IF/OF, Luke Pedrigi, sr., IF/OF, Burlington Central; Toby Splitt, sr., IF, Dane Schuster, jr., IF, Zack Labrec, sr., P/OF, Ben Hurt Haller, sr., OF, Cary-Grove; Ysen Useni, sr., P/DH, Mark DeCicco, sr., IF/P, Mason Struck, sr., 2B, Aidan Stratton, sr., P, Chris Kahle, sr., IF/OF, Dayton Murphy, soph., SS, Crystal Lake South; Ryan Zonts, soph., C, Chris Cole, soph., IF/P, Elgin Academy; Blake Stempowski, sr., 3B/P, Carson Sprague, sr., OF/1B, Sean Kennedy, sr., P, Owen Anderson, sr., C, Ryan Huskey, sr., OF, Daniel Alworth, sr., P/OF, Geneva; Tommy Abbatacola., sr., OF, Luke Griffith, sr., P/1B, Keegan Weidman, sr., P/2B, Harvest Christian; Tyler Doonan, jr., P/OF, Matthew Karbowski, sr., SS/P, Austin Ernst, jr., P/OF/1B, Dominick Kooistra, jr., 1B, Austin Leonard, jr., C, Colin Miller, jr., P, Hampshire; Adam Guazzo, sr., P, Brandon Hanley, sr., C/3B, Ryan Kelly, sr., P/C, Michael Vitellaro, sr., P, Lucas Goldstein, sr., P/IF, Harout Meyer, sr., P/Utility, Ryan Bakes, jr., C/OF, Brayden Bakes, jr., OF, Andrew Ressler, jr., P, Huntley; Keegan Connors, sr., IF, Joey Fiorenza, sr., OF, Jacobs; Dylan Conklin, sr., SS/2B/P, Alex Panico, jr., OF, Logan Kottmeyer, sr., IF/P, Johnny Spallasso, jr., P/Utility, Kaneland; Javier Cervantes, sr., IF, Elijah Holst, jr., CF/SS/P, Anthony Mora, jr., OF/P, Larkin; Jack Zebig, sr., SS/P, Mac Ecchler, sr., C, Marmion; Ben Karpowicz, sr., SS/3B, Jackson Bessette, sr., C/1B/OF, Drew Piaskowy, sr., P, Josh Genz, sr., 3B/P, Owen Cutinello, sr., C, Jesus Munoz-Aparicio, sr., OF, South Elgin; Gavin Sitarz, sr., P, Nathan Hayes, sr., P, Jake Zitella, jr., 3B, Carter Laskowski, sr., 2B, Dom LeBlanc, sr., OF/P, St. Charles East; Jayden Lobliner, sr., C, Ryan Caccia, sr., OF, Aidan O’Connell, sr., IF, Carson Hall, sr., P, Chris Graziano, sr., IF/OF, St. Charles North; Anthony Buono, sr., P/RF, Jack Cozzi, soph., P/OF/1B, St. Edward; Nicholas Weaver, jr., C/IF/P, Jacob Gama, sr., 1B, Kevin Lunz, sr., IF/P, Richard Santiago, sr., OF, Chris Lara, jr., SS/P, Miguel Rodriguez, soph., OF/P, Streamwood; Matt Tarr, sr., P, Joey Pokryfke, sr., IF, Ryan Niedzwiedz, jr., SS, Kelly Roney, sr., 3B/OF/P, Ben Wisniewski, sr., 1B/C/P, Dalton Hannon, sr., P, West Aurora.
Key newcomers: Jack Carroll, sr., P/RF, Sam Carroll, soph., 2B/P, Aurora Central Catholic; Adam Rocha, jr., P/IF/OF, Ryan Jones, jr., OF/C/P, Grant Keppy, jr., IF/OF/P, Conner Kendall, jr., P/OF/1B, Aurora Christian; Ryan Renella, soph., CF/P, Colin Swalley, soph., IF/P, Dylan Scott, jr., OF/P, Mario Prieto, jr., 1B/P, Brendan Campbell, soph., SS/P, Bartlett; Ryan Boe, soph., P, Jack Brozny, jr., C, Alex Taylor, sr., IF, Joe Kleist, jr., P, Batavia; Chase Powrozek, fr., P/OF, Burlington Central; Logan Leach, sr., P/1B, Jack Taczy, sr., 1B/P, Antonio Santa Cruz, sr., OF/IF, Nathan Crick, jr., C, Nolan Pociejewski, jr., IF, Cary-Grove; Kyle Kuffel, jr., C, C.J. Regillio, soph., OF/P, Joey McEneny, jr., OF/P, Jayden Gumprecht, jr., OF/P, Cole Tilley, soph., 1B/P, Crystal Lake South; Tayten Wilder, soph., SS, Liam Shackleton, jr., P/1B, Elgin Academy; Nate Stempowski, soph., SS, Tommy Maynard, jr., 1B/C, Jackson Dibble, jr., OF, Joey Cosentino, soph., P/OF, Chase Sorrentino, soph., IF/P, Bryce Breon, soph., P/1B, Geneva; Steven Coombs, jr., OF, J.P. Reiger, jr., 2B/OF, Charlie Smerek, soph., OF, Joseph Bonick, soph., P, Kaden Meeker, soph., P/OF, Harvest Christian; Nathaniel Buehrer, jr., P/OF, Dominic Borecky, soph., P/IF, Cooper Jaworski, jr., P/C, Kyle Johnson, jr., P/OF, Casey Kaszniak, jr., P/IF/OF, Hampshire; Payton Barr, sr., P, Michael Wanhala, sr., OF, Kyle Alther, sr., 3B, Ryan Stary, sr., C/Utility, Huntley; Parker Violett, soph., 1B/OF/P, Kaneland; Carter Novelli, soph., C/OF, Enzo Novelli, soph., SS/P, Michael Hernandez, soph., C/1B, Larkin; Sam Seykora, soph., IF, Ethan Flores, fresh., C, Marmion; Alex Tinio, sr., IF/P, Jordan Green, jr., OF, South Elgin; Seth Winkler, jr., SS/P, Clay Jensen, jr., OF, AJ Gaca, sr., C, St. Charles East; Anthony Estrada, jr., P/3B, Colin Ryder, soph., P/1B, Parker Reinke, soph., OF, Jackson Spring, soph., IF/C, Will Vaske, jr., OF, Jack Kennedy, sr., P/1B, Josh Kennedy, sr., P, St. Charles North; Mario Avila, jr., IF/C, Carter Blanchard, jr., IF/P, Joey Lunz, jr., OF, Jaden Perez, soph., IF/C/P, Antonio Alanis, soph., OF, Streamwood; Gavin Nolan, sr., P, Lucas Aguirre, jr., OF/P, Colin Tarr, jr., P/Utility, Ethan Weaver, jr., 1B, West Aurora.
Season skinny: Having their last two seasons significantly affected by COVID-19 (shortened season in 2021; total cancellation in 2020), area coaches are looking forward to a full schedule this spring. “Last year was tough on everyone trying to fit games around other sports,” said Batavia coach Alex Beckmann. “It feels good to be back on track.”
Hampshire coach Frank Simoncelli echoed similar sentiments.
“Some of these players, especially the current juniors, don’t even know what a normal season looks like,” he said. “They lost their entire freshman year and then had a fast-paced, shortened season as sophomores. It’s amazing to finally get back to a full high school baseball season.
“I seriously can’t wait just to play baseball. Coaching is so much more than just wins and losses. Providing these players with a season full of memories is what it’s all about.”
There are plenty of top-notch area players to follow, including Division I commits Ysen Useni of Crystal Lake South (UIC), Huntley’s Adan Guazzo (Valpo), St. Charles East’s Gavin Sitarz (Michigan State), St. Charles North’s Jayden Lobliner (Kansas State), and West Aurora’s Matt Tarr (Kent State). Huntley juniors Ryan Bakes (South Carolina), Brayden Bakes (Wichita State) and Andrew Ressler (Butler) are verbal D-I commits, while Marmion’s Jack Zebig (Maryville) is a Division II recruit.
Huntley returns 16 players from its 32-3 squad that reached the Class 4A sectional finals a year ago, including 100-plus innings on the mound, led by Guazzo, Ressler, Michael Vitellaro, and Malachi Paplanus. The Red Raiders will face challenges from McHenry, Jacobs, Crystal Lake South, Hampshire and Burlington Central in the rugged FVC.
Meanwhile, 4A sectional finalist St. Charles North posted a 29-4 mark in 2021, anchored by since-graduated all-stater Nick DeMarco (Notre Dame). Led by Jayden Lobliner and pitchers Carson Hall, Jack Kennedy, Josh Kennedy and Marmion transfer Anthony Estrada, the North Stars aim for their consecutive DuKane Conference crown.
Regional champions St. Charles East and Geneva could provide stiff challenges for the North Stars in the DuKane.
Bartlett, which captured its first conference title last season, hopes to repeat in the Upstate Eight, while South Elgin, Streamwood, Larkin, and Elgin look to contend.
Class 2A regional winner Harvest Christian should be formidable once again — this time in 1A play.
“We lost only one defensive starter from a team that won its fifth straight regional title,” said Lions coach Matt Ellett.