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Area pair primed for title runs

March 26, 2008

Hope springs eternal at the start of every high school baseball season, but for two area teams expectations are particularly high.

With plenty of talent returning from squads that made deep postseason runs last year, Westminster Christian and St. Charles North enter the 2008 season with legitimate state title aspirations.

For the North Stars, a deep and experienced pitching staff that ranks among the best in the state has them being mentioned as one of the favorites to be playing at Silver Cross Field in Joliet when the Class 4A State Finals are held in June.

Headlining North's rotation are junior lefty Zach Hirsch (8-0, 0.93 ERA) and senior Brian De la Torriente (5-1, 1.59 ERA), who both earned All-Upstate Eight Conference honors last year. Also returning for the North Stars is three-year varsity standout Jake Thornton, who led the area with a .465 batting average last season and is one of the state's top center fielders.

After setting a school record for wins last year with a 30-6 record and also breaking through for the first regional title in program history before losing to Dundee-Crown in a sectional title game, North is now focused on topping those accomplishments.

"We definitely want to go one step farther and make it to state," Thornton said.

"It's a lofty goal, but we all think we can do it."

A trip to Joliet wouldn't be anything new for Westminster, which capped its surprising postseason run with a trip to the Class A state quarterfinals last year.

Not only does every player return from the squad that finished 25-14 last season, but the Warriors also have a welcome addition in senior Casey Schuring, who is expected to make an impact after transferring from Jacobs.

Ben Palmer tops the list of returnees for Westminster. The standout pitcher posted a 10-3 record and struck out an area-best 128 batters while allowing only six earned runs in 82 2/3 innings last year.

With fellow talented seniors Cory Hodge, Carter Ward and Tyler Beachler joining Palmer, the Warriors are in prime shape to contend for the Class 1A state title. However, they know they won't be able to fly under the radar like they did last year en route to the first regional, sectional and super-sectional titles in school history.

"Nobody really knew a lot about us last year, and now we've gotten a little bit of publicity so everyone is going to look out for us and probably throw their No. 1 (pitchers) against us," Palmer said.

The conference to watch this spring is without a doubt the Upstate Eight. North won the UEC title last year, but that accomplishment was small-time compared to Neuqua Valley's Class AA state title.

The Wildcats finished second to the North Stars in the league standings, but the teams split a pair of 1-0 contests in their two meetings. Expect another thrilling series when the teams square off April 14 and 15.

St. Charles East and Larkin also figure to be in the mix for the UEC title.

With seniors Mike Hoscheit and Tyler Deetjen and junior Zack Scott back in the fold, the Saints hope to improve on last year's 19-14 overall mark and might be the team best suited to surpass North and Neuqua.

Meanwhile, the Royals are coming off an impressive 23-13 campaign in coach Doug Ellett's first season at the helm. Seniors John Banks and Cam Kinley lead a group of talented returnees who hope to help Larkin hold its own against the UEC's titans.

"I don't know if we're there yet, but we're going to fight like heck when we play those top teams in the league," Ellett said. "That's certainly where we'd like to have our program headed."

Both divisions in the Fox Valley Conference also figure to be competitive. Led by junior standout Craig Lipp, Huntley is expected to be near the top of the FVC Fox standings, but state-title contender Prairie Ridge appears to be at the head of the class.

Meanwhile, Jacobs and Dundee-Crown are both expected to be in the mix in what's shaping up to be a dogfight in the FVC Valley.

With first-year coach Eric Sanders leading the way, the Golden Eagles should improve on last year's 14-17 record. Meanwhile, the Chargers will try to send retiring coach Fred Bencriscutto out in style in the last of his 17 seasons at the helm.

Despite being confident in his team's ability, Bencriscutto knows D-C has a tough act to follow after losing a number of seniors from last year's team that finished 28-8 and earned a trip to the Class AA state quarterfinals.

"There's just a lot of question marks," Bencriscutto said. "We'll have to see how the guys respond, but everybody graduated seniors and every team is pretty much going through the same thing we're going through."

In the Big Northern Conference East Division, Hampshire and two-time defending league champion Burlington Central will both be trying keep pace with talented Marengo and Richmond-Burton squads.

Senior Bryan Bell is the top returnee to a Rockets team that hopes to continue its streak of six straight 20-win seasons. Meanwhile, sophomore Ryan Burke should bolster the pitching rotation and batting order for a Hampshire team that hopes to build on last year's regional title.

"We're really excited about this year," Hampshire coach Steve Ream said. "It's a good group of kids and they've got great attitudes."

Coach: Jeff Moeller (7th season)

2007 record: 25-14 (Qualified for Class A Elite Eight)

Top players: Seniors Ben Palmer (LHP/1B), Cory Hodge (SS), Carter Ward (C), Tyler Beachler (OF), Ted Grossman (2B), Ryan Donahue (RHP/OF), Junior Brandon Siewert (RHP/3B), Chad Schroy (LHP/1B/OF)

Top newcomers: Casey Schuring (OF/RHP), Jake Moeller (IF)

Outlook: One of the best, if not the best, small-school teams in the state, the Warriors return the key components from the squad that put Westminster on the baseball map with a Class A Elite Eight berth in 2007. Palmer was one of the most dominant Class A pitchers in the state as a junior and is now signed to play for Dallas Baptist University. Despite a nagging back injury that has since improved, he went 10-3 with a microscopic ERA of 0.22, struck out 128 in 82 innings and walked just 22. He may return to the lineup as a hitter this season as well. Hodge is another returning all-area pick and one of the area's finest shortstops. He hit .402 (43-for-107) with 15 doubles, 4 triples and 32 RBI. Ward is one of the area's best catchers defensively and offensively. He hit .327 (35-for-107) with 9 doubles, 2 home runs, 24 RBI and a team-best 40 runs scored. Schuring, a former Westminster School student who transferred back from Jacobs, steps in and becomes the team's No. 2 pitcher. He will also play center field. Beachler, who hit .333, moves to left. Siewert hit .296 and slugged .426 and went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in 21-plus innings. Donahue (5-5) won a regional title game and finished with an ERA of 2.63 in almost 70 innings. "We just hope to keep the kids humble and hungry," Moeller said. "If they stay that way and keep working hard, the sky's the limit. We could be playing in the final game if we don't get cocky and arrogant."

Courtesy of the Daily Herald

 

Westminster Christian

Coach: Jeff Moeller (7th season)

2007 Record:

25-14, 8-7 PSL, Regional, Sectional and Super-Sectional Champions.

Top Returnees: Seniors Ben Palmer (P), Cory Hodge (SS), Carter Ward (C/3B), Tyler Beachler (OF), Ted Grossman(2B), Tyler Griffith (OF). Ryan Donahue (P/OF), Juniors Brandon Siewert (P/IF), Steve Berglund(P/OF), Chadd Schroy (P/1B).

Top Newcomers: Senior Casey Schuring (P/OF). Juniors Zach Holmer (IF), Jake Moeller (IF),Kevin Kimbrough (OF).

Outlook: The Warriors have lofty goals after heading to the Elite Eight last season. Moeller — the reigning Courier News Coach of the Year — is eyeing a return trip Downstate, as well as having his team contend in the PSL. Westminster didn’t lose any seniors from last season’s squad. All-State selection Ben Palmer will lead the staff after posting a 10-3 mark and 0.82 ERA last year. Palmer, who will attend Dallas Baptist next year, also led the area with 128 strikeouts in just 82.2 innings pitched. Moeller said that Palmer, who has battled a back injury in the past, is as healthy as he’s ever been after adding 15 pounds in the off-season. Donahue and Berglund will be called upon to step up in the rotation behind Palmer. Hodge (.406, 32 RBIs), Ward (.310, 24RBIs) and Beachler (.280, 18 SBs) will provide plenty of punch at the plate. Schuring, who transferred from Jacobs, and Grossman should also play key roles.

Quote: “We’ve got a situation where kids that were starters last year will have to work just as hard this year because of the players that we have now and how guys have developed,” Moeller said. “It’s going to be very competitive for everyone to get on the field.”

—Compiled by Andy Rohr and Erik Jacobsen Courier News