Matt Starai set the standard this season while setting an example for St. Charles East baseball players to come.
All it takes is one dynamite offseason to make something special happen, Starai showed.
After flying under the radar in limited relief duty as a junior, Starai's senior season was something else altogether. The hard-throwing right-hander went 11-1 with an ERA of 0.59 in pitching the Saints to an IHSA Class 4A third-place finish and commanding Kane County Chronicle Baseball Player of the Year honors.
"It gives hope to those junior kids that don't play much that it is possible to come out your senior year and have a breakout season and get exposure and get scholarship offers because of how good you are," Saints coach Len Asquini said. "You've just got to keep working, keep working. That's what Matt did."
A combination of factors – including a wrist injury and a stacked Saints pitching staff last season – relegated Starai to 18 innings of work in 2012.
He ended the season frustrated his junior year didn't pan out the way he would have liked but rededicated himself to his craft, working on his own and with the Team Illinois travel program to add velocity, sharpen his breaking pitchers and consistently pound the strike zone.
All of the above materialized throughout this spring as Starai lost just once to a Neuqua Valley team that he then defeated in the state third-place game to cap the season.
Starai didn't think he had his top-shelf stuff in the final Neuqua game but he still clawed his way through the Wildcats' lineup with a workmanlike five innings before Troy Dykhuis did the rest. Most of the Saints' opponents weren't so lucky.
Starai's signature week in a season full of them was shutting out Batavia, twice, in a span of six days in April. Considering the Saints and Bulldogs ended up sharing the Upstate Eight Conference River crown, those two white-washings carry residual luster.
"They were huge outings for us," Asquini said. "Obviously we didn't quite know it right then, but they were."
Starai fired consecutive three-hitters accounting for two of his four postseason wins, stifling Lake Park in a sectional semifinal and Jacobs in a supersectional that advanced East to Joliet.
Starai said he's drawn inspiration from the Saints' tradition of high-caliber arms, which made it deeply meaningful when former Saints ace and current Kansas southpaw Wes Benjamin saluted Starai after the Lake Park shutout.
"He just congratulated me and told me to keep working hard," Starai said. "We talked about how he did at Kansas this year. It was just cool to have all the alumni back at that game."
Starai knew how to put on a show, even for his own teammates.
Saints senior first baseman Brian Sobieski said Starai's rhythm was evident as the season progressed.
"He was always humble but you could see his confidence just raise throughout the season," Sobieski said. "There'd be some times I'd be playing first base and he'd throw an 0-2 or 1-2 slider, and he'd turn around [after he released it] and knew the kid wasn't going to touch it and he knew he'd get the strikeout. … He could feel it off the hand, and just knew no one could touch it."
His fastball – generally in the 80s – and sharp curveball also gave hitters plenty to fret about, especially given his knack for working ahead in counts.
Starai is in the late stages of making a college call, with a pair of downstate junior colleges – Heartland and Parkland – in the mix, along with Lee University (Tenn.), a four-year school transitioning to Division II that is known for churning out baseball prospects.
Starai could be immediately eligible at a Division I program pending summer school results but he thinks he could position himself for a bigger splash if he starts out smaller.
"It gives you an opportunity to get drafted a couple more times," Starai said of going the junior college route. "You can get drafted even after freshman and sophomore year. If you go to a four-year school you have to wait until after your junior year to get drafted, and [junior college] also gives you an opportunity to get down to maybe an [Southeastern Conference] school or [Atlantic Coast Conference] school if you have a big-time freshman or sophomore year. Big-time doors can open like that."
Starai knows all about making a giant leap in a short period of time.
If his career can be recounted as a pick-me-up, pep talk to future Saints who are struggling to find their way, so be it.
"There are always going to be people who are more talented but there's no reason for them to work harder than you," Starai said. "If you keep working hard, you can achieve anything."