Baseball: Strong pitching buoys Neuqua Valley’s hopes
BY BLAKE BAUMGARTNER For Sun-Times Media March 19, 2013 6:02PM
Neuqua Valley’s David Gerber was 8-0 with a 1.21 ERA last season as a junior. | Donnell collins~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 21, 2013 6:04AM
Last March, Neuqua Valley coach Robin Renner was frank in passing along the belief that his players held regarding their expectations for the season — getting to the state semifinals in Joliet.
Falling three wins shy of that season-long goal last spring after being upset by upstart Metea Valley, finding a starting point for redemption in 2013 isn’t too hard.
Getting 30 wins behind solid pitching and solid defense last year, that recipe figures to be the same once again.
Hoping to step right into the shoes of staff ace Nick Blackburn, Creighton-bound senior right-hander David Gerber is back to lead a pitching staff for Renner and pitching coach John Fumagalli that combined to post a 1.97 ERA in 248 2/3 innings last year.
As a junior, Gerber went 8-0 with a 1.21 ERA while striking out 64 in 52 innings. He will be joined by seniors Danny Mokrzycki, Cody Coll, Jon Vlk and Pat Kenny.
“The staff is a good starting point for us,” Renner said. “We’re excited about that and so are the guys.”
Buoyed by finishing third on the team in strikeouts to Blackburn and Gerber in strikeouts with 43, Mokrzycki figures to give the Wildcats a nice righty-lefty combination at the top of their rotation.
All five of those pitchers posted ERAs of 2.41 or lower, with Gerber’s 1.21 leading the team overall, and all five tossed at least 42 innings in 2012.
While Blackburn moved on to Illinois after posting a 7-4 record that included three one-run defeats, the Wildcats will need to find a way to replace the production of the departed Tanner Giesel and Jack Amaro in the lineup.
Flashing a Gold Glove at short, Giesel finished the year hitting .395 to go along with a team-high 38 RBI, while Amaro hit .372 and tallied a team-high 43 runs in the leadoff spot.
“We’re gonna miss all three of those guys,” Renner said of Blackburn, Giesel and Amaro. “They were a huge part of our team — Nick, Jack and Tanner. However we’ve got guys (who can fill those voids).”
Jeff Evak, Matt Wollnik and Dylan Goss are three of the returnees from last year that will look to lead the Neuqua Valley offense.
The Purdue-bound Evak, who’ll join Amaro in West Lafayette, Ind. next fall, hit a team-high .455 while compiling a team-best 1.111 OPS after catching fire shortly after Renner moved him from the bottom of the lineup to right behind Amaro in the two-hole.
Wollnik, who’ll move from second to shortstop, hit .289 with 15 RBI in 37 games last year, while Goss hit .293 with two homers and 24 RBI from behind the plate in his first full year with the varsity after coming up late as a sophomore in 2011.
“I think that we have some really good baseball players in Jeff Evak and Wollnik and Dylan. We have some juniors to fill in and some seniors that didn’t get much playing time last year,” Renner said. “They’re all very good baseball players. They’re working very hard, so I’m a big believer in hard work pays off. So I’m just hoping that the offense comes around.”
Renner, who has piloted the Neuqua Valley program since its inception, often says that on his best teams, a couple players step up and do unexpected things coming into the year.
With the program’s fourth 30-win season and the tough 2-1 loss to Metea Valley in the second semifinal of the Class 4A Romeoville Sectional last June now in the rearview mirror, he believes a chance to repeat as Upstate Eight Valley champions is within his team’s grasp.
But he also admits that much more could be eventually waiting down the road, as well.
“A few years ago, I heard (former Naperville Central coach) Bill Seiple say something that made so much sense to me,” he said. “(Seiple) said that, ‘At the beginning of the year or during the year, you want to be … there’s a pie and you want to be a piece of the pie. There might 10 slices of that pie. You just want to be part of that pie and if you’re a piece of the pie, you have a chance to get to Joliet.’
“In my mind, I believe we’re a piece of the pie. I’m not saying we’re the best team in the state. I’m not predicting that we’re gonna get there and I’ve done it long enough to understand that in order to get there, things have to go your way. But in order to get there, you do have to be a piece of that pie.”