ST. CHARLES – Strong defense up the middle has been a calling card for the St. Charles East baseball team this season.
That’s no accident.
East coach Len Asquini makes it a top priority to ensure the Saints are sure-handed at catcher, second base, shortstop and center field. If the Saints are going to kick the ball around, he wants to make sure it doesn’t happen at those high-traffic spots.
“It’s huge for our program across the board to be strong [up the middle],” Asquini said. “We’re trying to get our best athletes and our best players there.”
East’s glovework up the middle is one of the chief reasons the Saints are making their first state appearance since 2004, beginning with today’s IHSA Class 4A semifinal against Libertyville.
The Saints’ defensive prowess starts behind home plate, where junior Adam Rojas has earned rave reviews in his debut season as varsity catcher. A near perfect throw to cut down a would-be Jacobs base-stealer in Monday’s supersectional win was the latest proud moment for Rojas, who has caught since his father, Eric, slotted him there during his youth baseball days.
“I was kind of like a tough guy when I was younger, my dad said,” Rojas said. “I’ve just kind of been back there forever.”
Rojas said he looks at base stealers as “a free out.”
“I get excited when they steal second because it’s just an opportunity to show them that they shouldn’t steal on me, because I’m ready for them to go,” Rojas said.
Asquini has seen his share of quality defensive catchers and thinks Rojas has a special skill set.
“He just gets that ball from the mitt and out so much quicker than anybody I’ve seen,” Asquini said. “When his arm strength catches up to him and we get him a little bit stronger, he’s got quite a combination.”
When Rojas hasn’t had the chance to throw runners out, the Saints often have been able to clear the basepaths via the double play. The double-play combination of senior shortstop Nicholas Erickson and senior second baseman Jack Dellostritto has done the Saints’ pitching staff favors throughout the postseason.
“Jack this year’s new at second, so we worked together hard all winter,” Erickson said. “The chemistry’s been great. Playing with him has been awesome.”
Erickson, a Columbia recruit, committed only five errors at the demanding shortstop spot as a junior. This season, that total has risen, but he’s returned to his airtight ways during the postseason, and Dellostritto has only five errors on the spring at second base.
“Jack’s a left-side infielder playing second base, so he’s strong-armed, quick feet – that’s very, very helpful,” Asquini said. “Some of those double plays that a typical second baseman in high school’s not going to get it turned over, because of his arm strength, [he can].”
Senior center fielder Anthony Sciarrino is another of East’s defensive lynchpins.
Sciarrino doesn’t have the blazing speed of fellow standout outfielder Brannon Barry, the Saints’ right fielder, but Sciarrino gets reliable jumps on the ball and has no trouble communicating on balls in the gap.
“Being boisterous is big [for a center fielder], and Anthony certainly is that,” Asquini said with a smile.
East and Libertyville made a fleeting connection Monday when the Saints took the field at the Rockford Aviators’ stadium in Loves Park just after Libertyville polished off Maine South in the night’s first supersectional. By now, Erickson said the Saints shouldn’t be intimidated playing in a larger stadium like Joliet’s Silver Cross Field.
“The atmosphere [at Loves Park] was great, we played at the Cougars’ stadium earlier in the year, so we’re prepared for that kind of environment,” Erickson said.
Asquini coached the Saints to a Class AA state championship in 1999 during his first tour of duty with the program. If the Saints are going to seize another state crown, continued slick defense likely will be part of the equation.
“I would say this group is making some history for themselves, and that’s kind of how we’re approaching it,” Asquini said. “This is their year and they’ve already done some wonderful things here in the postseason. This is their chance now, this weekend, to put that accent mark on it, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
IHSA Class 4A Baseball State Finals Today's semifinals at Silver Cross Field in Joliet Mt. Carmel (31-8) vs. Neuqua Valley (30-9), 3 p.m. St. Charles East (27-11) vs. Libertyville (27-11-1), 5 p.m. Third-place game at 3 p.m. Saturday; championship game at 5:30 p.m.Of note: St. Charles East senior righty Matt Starai enters the weekend with a 10-1 record and shimmering 0.54 ERA. Saints coach Len Asquini has said Starai could be available on three days' rest Friday considering his low pitch count in the supersectional win against Jacobs. … Four of Libertyville's five postseasons wins were by two runs or less, including a 2-1 win against Fremd and a 2-0 win against Stevenson in sectionals.