Baseball: Naperville North seeks elusive postseason success
BY BLAKE BAUMGARTNER For Sun-Times Media March 19, 2013 6:38PM
Veteran infielder Nick Solak led Naperville North at the plate last year with a .442 average and 27 RBI. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 21, 2013 6:05AM
Entering last season, the premise was pretty simple for Naperville North — redemption.
Successfully finding a way to rebound from winning just 11 games in 2011 by turning in a 21-win season, the focus now for Naperville North coming into this spring is to find a way to get over the postseason hump.
The Huskies dug themselves out of a 4-10 start by winning 13 of 14 games from mid-April to mid-May. They finished just outside the DuPage Valley Conference race before eventually being upset by Bolingbrook, 8-1, in their postseason opener last May.
Claiming just three regional titles in the last 16 years, Naperville North’s fortunes for making a postseason run this year starts with the leader of its infield, senior shortstop Nick Solak.
Solak, entering his third year on the varsity, hit a robust .442 while knocking in 27 runs and compiling a 1.172 OPS.
“Our whole team this year is built around Nick, who’s a three-year starter, an All-State player for us, and Pat Mollo, who played quite a bit for us last year, ended up starting quite a few games for us,” coach Carl Hunckler said.
The Louisville-bound Solak will be pacing a lineup that needs to replace four Division-I players as for the first time since the 2009 season, the Huskies will begin a season without the services of Mariano Long.
Long, who’s now at the Air Force Academy after a three-year varsity stint with the Huskies, took home 2012 DuPage Valley Conference Player of the Year honors after hitting .429 with two homers and 27 RBI.
Along with Long, Alex Moss, Tyler Hogan, Conner Adamski — who are at DePauw, Western Kentucky and Navy, respectively — provided significant punch in the lineup alongside Solak.
“Losing them is definitely gonna be a big loss — their bats in the lineup,” Solak said. “But definitely with the guys we got, Pat and I will be in the middle of the lineup (to) bring power, speed. And with all the other guys, we’ve got a lot of juniors and a few sophomores that are gonna step up.”
The Illinois Wesleyan-bound Mollo, who played mainly at third a year ago, should get a crack to replace both Hogan and Adamski behind the plate after hitting .341 with two homers and 24 RBI in 2012.
Bringing up a pair of sophomores who both have family lineage within the Huskies’ program in Mark Khoury, a catcher and first baseman, and Alex Garon, an outfielder, the Huskies will be on the younger side in an attempt to replenish their lineup after all the graduation losses.
“Well, to say the least, I’ve been very pleased. We have a great work ethic,” Hunckler said. “We have a lot of individuals that have shown me good things within the first two weeks, as well as during our summer camp.”
One of those players, junior Ryan Krainz, will step in at second base. Hunckler added that other players will be moving around not only within the lineup but in the field.
As big as Long’s presence in the lineup was, perhaps the biggest influence he provided was while he was on the mound, in going a combined 13-5 in the last two years.
Leading the Huskies’ staff by going 8-2 with a 3.32 ERA while fanning 67 in 59 innings of work, trying to fill the void left by Long’s departure on the mound will be paramount for Naperville North’s chances this spring.
A pair of seniors in Colin Ash, who fired a no-hitter against Downers Grove South’s last April, and Ian Gustafson are back to try and meet that end.
Ash went 3-2 with a 4.76 ERA in 25 innings as a junior last year, while the left-handed Gustafson, headed for Johns Hopkins in the fall, tossed just 14 innings last year in going 0-3 with an 8.00 ERA.
Senior Carson Brown, who threw just 2/3 of an inning last year, and a number of juniors will fall in line behind both Ash and Gustafson as the Huskies look to get some deeper production from the mound.
“I think anybody will tell you that you got to have good pitching, so the onus is going to be initially on our seniors — Colin and Ian,” Hunckler said. “We’re expecting great things from them this year and then Carson — we’re gonna have to see how things go for him. He’s gonna be given that opportunity and we have several juniors that also will be given opportunities to get innings in, more so than what we saw last year.”
Thrust into somewhat of a leadership role even as far back as 2011 when he was part of an 11-win team as a sophomore, Solak readily admits the program’s lack of consistent postseason success is nagging.
Now facing his final high school season, Solak is determined to see that change.
“It’s definitely frustrating. In my two years, I haven’t won a playoff game and that’s tough,” he said. “But I think the difference this year is that it all comes from the group of guys. They’re gonna take the initiative to turn the program around and do something.”