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Westminster after just one thing: a state title
By Jerry Fitzpatrick Daily Herald
  
 
One-hundred percent healthy, Westminster Christian senior pitcher/first baseman Ben Palmer, right, is ready to help lead the Warriors to what they hope will be a Class 1A state championship.
Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

They have no reason to mince words.

After qualifying last season for the Class A Elite Eight at Joliet's Silver Cross Stadium without any seniors on the roster, the loaded Westminster Christian baseball team will accept only one result from the 2008 Class 1A state tournament.

"It's not just about going to Joliet anymore. It's about winning it all." said coach Jeff Moeller, whose Warriors were 21-5 through Wednesday. "That's the way we're viewing it as coaches and players. I don't think the kids would be happy just to go and walk away with a third- or fourth-place trophy. I think we'd be pretty disappointed if that happens.

"Other programs would be excited just to make it downstate like we were last year, but the standard has been set. Expectations have risen and the expectation is to win it all."

There are five valid reasons to believe Westminster Christian can do exactly that:

1. The Warriors' path to a title is easier than last year due to the implementation of the new four-class system.

Cleared from Westminster's playoff path are Class 2A schools it defeated last year on the road to Joliet, like Harvard and St. Edward.

But Westminster Christian has been on a mission since the season started to prove it is not only the best Class 1A team in the state but the best team in 1A or 2A.

The Warriors scheduled and beat teams from higher classes like Driscoll, Glenbard East, St. Edward and Belvidere North and have played only a few games this season against the Class 1A competition they'll face next week.

2. Hitting, hitting, hitting

Few teams can score runs like the Warriors, who outscore their opponents by an average 10.1 runs to 3.5.

ECC-bound shortstop Cory Hodge, who harbors Division I college and professional baseball aspirations, is the area's leading hitter, averaging .525 (31-for-59) with 9 doubles and 4 home runs.

But Hodge represents just the tip of the offensive spear. Three other regulars are hitting .400 or above. Three more average better than .300. As a team Westminster is hitting .386 with 24 home runs, led by catcher Carter Ward's 8 blasts.

Even if they run up against a team's ace, the Warriors can score using small ball. In fact, last week they bunted safely in four straight at-bats against Belvidere North.

"That's what I'm excited about," Moeller said. "If it comes down to small ball, we've got guys who are quality bunters with good feet."

3. Ben Palmer is 100 percent healthy.

The left-handed senior is among the better pitchers in the suburbs when healthy, which he never really was last year when he gutted out some great performances in the playoffs. His ailing back finally got the best of him during the 12-1 state quarterfinal loss to Pinckneyville, a game in which Palmer rode a stationary bike between innings to try to stay loose.

No such worries this year. Committed to play Division-I baseball at Dallas Baptist, Palmer is 5-2 with a 1.20 ERA and 64 strikeouts. And because his back is healthy Palmer has been able to swing the bat again for the first time in two seasons. He has been a huge boost to the lineup, hitting .393 with 7 doubles and 3 homers.

"I never thought we'd score runs like we have been," Palmer said. "It's pretty much a given we're going to score. It's just a matter of holding the team we're playing."

4. Improved pitching depth

Besides Palmer's improved health, the pitching staff is better rounded this year overall. No. 2 starter Brandon Siewert has enjoyed a breakout season. He's 6-0 with a 2.64 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 38 innings.

If either starting pitcher gets in trouble, Moeller can call on sidearmer Steve Berglund (1-0) or Casey Schuring, who transferred back to Westminster after attending Jacobs. When not playing a great defensive center field, Schuring, a .470 hitter with 19 steals, is also 2-0 on the mound with a 3.24 ERA.

5. Humility

Despite their status as obvious title contenders, the Warriors are confident in their abilities while remaining cognizant they could still lose if they have a poor defensive game, which they experienced on Tuesday when they made 4 errors in a loss to Aurora Christian.

"We're definitely confident all the way, but we're not overlooking the early stages of the playoffs," said Ward, who must decide whether to play baseball at ECC or study medicine at Loyola University, where he has been accepted. "We're not sitting here thinking we're guaranteed to make a trip downstate. That's not in anyone's mind right now."

At this point the boys from Westminster Christian are simply itching to get the postseason started, regardless of the outcome of tonight's nonconference game against Burlington Central at Trout Park or Saturday's Private School League finale against Illiana Christian.

"I just want to get into the playoffs because we're playing so well," Ward said. "I just want to get there and play the way we've been playing."

If they can, the Warriors could make mincemeat out of the Class 1A competition.