It was only a conference crossover against Streator – hardly one of the Kaneland baseball team’s top rivals – but Knights senior pitcher John Hopkins thoroughly relished his recent complete-game win against the Bulldogs.
After all, when the season started, Hopkins would never have imagined it would take until May 11 for him to notch his first pitching victory of the spring.
“It felt pretty great because we haven’t really won too many game this year, and I finally got a win to help out my team,” Hopkins said of the 2-1 victory against Streator.
Hopkins was unable to pitch most of the spring due to a strained deltoid injury he suffered in a home-plate collision during Kaneland’s spring-break trip to the St. Louis area.
But the most seasoned pitcher on the Knights’ staff has rounded back in to form in recent weeks, further solidifying a deep Kaneland pitching staff as the Knights gear up for this week’s IHSA Class 3A Kaneland Regional.
A Waubonsee Community College recruit, Hopkins was an all-Northern Illinois Big 12 pitcher and honorable mention Kane County Chronicle All-Area selection as a junior. His loss could have been a brutal blow to the Knights, but several arms have emerged in his absence, keeping Kaneland’s pitching plenty respectable even with a short-handed staff.
Now that Hopkins is back, Kaneland coach Brian Aversa has some difficult decisions to make in aligning his rotation for the postseason.
He said five or six guys will need to be ready at a moment’s notice.
“We do have some depth with our pitching this year,” Aversa said. “That’s kind of been the thing that’s been keeping us in some games and getting us some wins in the end.”
With Hopkins relegated to second base duty much of the season, Kaneland still received solid pitching from starters such as Matt Limbrunner, Curtis Thorson, Blake Sowell and freshman Anthony Holubecki.
Hopkins, who threw three innings of one-run ball Saturday against Batavia, has helped back those pitchers up with his glovework at second base, a position he’s learned on the fly since the shorter throws helped ease his right, throwing arm back in to shape as he has gone through physical therapy.
“I was used to third base, like quick reactions if the ball was hit right back at you,” Hopkins said. “Second base you have to wait for it sometimes, sometimes you have to charge it. It was [an adjustment] at first but now I’ve got the hang of it.”
Just the same, the Knights would prefer to have Hopkins on the pitching rubber.
Kaneland catcher Josh Cohrs said he thinks Hopkins is “about as close to 100 percent as you can be without maybe being 100 percent.”
But regardless of how Kaneland’s pitching staff fares this week, the Knights know they’ll need a more robust offensive showing to advance beyond this week. Kaneland (12-16 entering today’s regular season finale against Wheaton Warrenville South) has dropped a lamentable number of tight, low-scoring games this season.
“It’s really just a matter of once you hit the playoffs, of what team gets hot,” Cohrs said. “If we have the consistent guys we’ve had throughout the season, we’ve had three, four, maybe five consistent bats, and if a couple [more] guys step up, it’s a completely different ballgame.”
Aversa was optimistic that having more practice time at the end of the regular season with which to fine-tune swings will pay off this week, starting with Thursday’s regional semifinal against Sandwich.
Cohrs thinks that if the lineup can meet the pitching staff half-way, some postseason excitement could be in store for the Knights.
“I feel like we can make a little bit of a run, for sure,” Cohrs said. “When you’ve got the pitching we have, I think we’re starting to put it all together as a team. We don’t need to put up seven, eight runs a game. It’d be nice to put up seven, eight runs a game, but if we can put up three or four runs a game, that keeps us in the ballgame, and we just need to find some ways to shut the door on teams.”
IHSA Class 4A Bartlett Regional
(2) Batavia vs. (18) Hoffman Estates, 4:30 p.m.
(7) Bartlett vs. (10) St. Charles North, 4:30 p.m.
IHSA Class 4A Geneva Regional
(4) St. Charles East vs. (13) Glenbard East, 4:30 p.m.
(6) Geneva vs. (12) Glenbard West, 4:30 p.m.
IHSA Class 3A Kaneland Regional
(1) St. Francis vs. (4) Plano or (5) IMSA, 4 p.m.
(2) Kaneland vs. (3) Sandwich, 4 p.m.
IHSA Class 3A Burlington Central Regional
(2) Burlington Central vs. (3) Marengo, 4:30 p.m.
Best first-round matchup: Bartlett vs. St. Charles North at 4A Bartlett Regional, 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Bartlett crushed North, 13-2, on a chilly April day, but the North Stars will be out to prove that one was a fluke, with quality lefties Ankur Shah and Cory Wright at their disposal for the postseason.
Best potential regional final: Geneva vs. St. Charles East at 4A Geneva Regional. These teams have had plenty of postseason history in recent seasons, and the Tri-Cities rivals would see each other in another regional final Saturday if the seeds hold. Geneva has hit well late in the season but likely would have to contend with East pitching standouts Matt Starai or Nick Huskisson.
Best bet to win a regional: Batavia at 4A Bartlett Regional. The Bulldogs have been the most well-rounded team in the Tri-Cities this season, and have shown the ability to manufacture runs in a variety of ways. If Batavia pitchers such as Luke Horton and Austin Shanahan are solid, the Bulldogs should be the class of a regional that would feature the winner of Bartlett-North as Saturday's opponent in the final.
Potential dark horse: Kaneland at 3A Kaneland Regional. The Knights would need to win a sectional to have a chance at a winning record this season and have struggled generating runs, but Kaneland has enough pitching to be a major factor in a regional that has solid-but-not-intimidating St. Francis as the top seed.