BATAVIA – Season-ending losses often trigger tears, shows of emotion Batavia baseball players hardly envision for themselves in 2014.
So what could possibly prompt longtime coach Matt Holm to nearly turn on the waterworks before the Bulldogs even threw or saw their first pitch this spring?
Have you checked out the Dogs' refurbished digs?
An offseason project costing nearly $200,000 saw the construction of new dugouts and the installation of a concrete backstop and 30-foot screen behind home plate, accoutrements that have only augmented Batavia's optimism.
"I stood out here by myself one day and almost cried just looking at it, knowing how long it's been just trying to get this thing going," Holm said. "And the people that we've had supporting it."
A former Bulldog entering his 23rd season as coach of his alma mater, Holm calls the effort one he's been pushing "for the better part of 15 years." Rumors of expanding Batavia's athletic facilities to nearby Mooseheart property were usually what curtailed talks – and action.
Demolition began Nov. 9, the same day a handful of Bulldogs played with the football team in a Class 6A second-round playoff game at Rolling Meadows. Batavia-based Eagle Concrete, owned by the family of sophomore baseball coach Craig Martin, headed the project.
"They were working in some of the coldest parts of the winter, so I really give those guys credit," Holm said. "Tremendous work and something that's really going to turn out well."
Like many, Holm and athletic director Dave Andrews are waiting for the weather to break so the group can administer finishing touches. The dugouts still need roofs, as well as some touch-up site work that will be more easily accomplished once the ground thaws.
If need be, Andrews said the field is game-ready should Batavia host Thursday's season opener against Minooka as scheduled. He then listed another reason fans shouldn't fret.
"As a spectator of softball and a spectator of lower-level baseball, you're not going to have to worry about varsity baseballs flying out to you," Andrews said. "Now we've just got to get the rest of them done."
Other fields and athletic facilities will be renovated as funds become available. In addition to money from the school's booster program, Batavia relied on donations/fundraisers from the baseball program and Batavia Youth Baseball.
Senior first baseman Micah Coffey, the third of four brothers to come through the school, is especially eager to take the field. Much of the core from a 2013 team that shared the Upstate Eight Conference River Division title and totaled a school-record 27 victories returns, and they won't just be trotting out to their positions on any old patch of land.
"To see some progress being made, it definitely generates a lot of energy, especially within the team, within the community," Coffey said. "Just seeing something happen with our baseball program, it's just exciting."
Holm cited the facilities at conference rivals St. Charles East and St. Charles North as an aesthetic model.
Once games begin, he and players are confident the field will develop a personality all its own.
"When you get everybody pushing in the right direction, you finally get something done," Holm said.
His eyes were dry. The ground was another story.
TEAMS TO WATCH
Aurora Central Catholic
Speaking with the Chronicle last month, junior second baseman/pitcher Hunter Fiorito of Batavia was bold in his reasoning to transfer from Aurora Christian to ACC last season. Fiorito thinks the team has a good chance of going deep in the state tournament, and the rest of the Chargers agree. However ACC fares, it will do so behind a crop of top pitchers who are also position players, including Andrew Bruss, Andy Czerak and Matt Rahn, who has recovered from summer ACL surgery.
Upgraded field, same excitement. Armed with a glut of college recruits – including Division I recruits Jake Piechota (Western Michigan), Micah Coffey (Minnesota) and Laren Eustace (Indiana) – Batavia is primed to improve on last season. Sharing the Upstate Eight Conference River Division title and winning a school-best 27 games were high points. The regional semifinal upset loss to Hoffman Estates was not. "We're not going to let what happened last year happen this year," said Eustace, a speedy outfielder/relief pitcher.
The Knights stumbled to a sub-.500 season in 2013, but look to rebound behind a senior core including Curtis Thorson (P/OF), Ty Carlson (1B/UT), Nate Hopkins (P/OF) and Nick Stahl (P). Kaneland also has a skilled sophomore class highlighted by Anthony Holubecki (P/OF) and Joe Laudont (C). The program hopes those are among the ingredients to win the Northern Illinois Big 12 East for the fourth time in five seasons.
Four 2013 all-Suburban Catholic Conference players headline a haul of seven returning starters. Senior shortstop Josh Meyers is a three-sport standout, while classmate Brady Roberts, the catcher, set a program record by batting .484 last season. Slotted for 4A in 2014, the Cadets will look to avoid the regional-opening losses that sank them when the team also played in 4A in 2009 and 2013. Marmion won 3A regionals in 2008 and from 2010 to 2012.
St. Charles East
Just three starters return from last season's 4A state tournament qualifier, but a run to the summer state tourney quickly eased some of coach Len Asquini's anxiety. "We've got our hands full to replace them, but I thought our kids in the summer did a wonderful job certainly in the end," he said. Adam Eck, a 6-foot-5 power lefty, and Mike Behmer, a location righty, look to step up on the mound. First baseman Ben Smith is a constant amid early-season battles in the middle infield.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
J.T. Baksha, Aurora Christian, Sr., P/1B/OF
The Eagles' bid to rebound from last season's early postseason exit hinges on help from the Western Illinois commit, who is one of several experienced seniors returning to coach Andy Zorger's lineup.
Brannon Barry, St. Charles East, Sr., CF
Saints are excited about Barry's athleticism in center as he moves over from right field. One of three returning starters from East's Class 4A state tournament team, he'll again be a threat offensively, too.
Micah Coffey, Batavia, Sr., 1B
Minnesota recruit led Batavia with 11 doubles in 2013 while tying for the team lead with three home runs. Also drove in 25 runs as a No. 3 hitter with plenty of speed and power to go around.
Nick Derr, Geneva, So., SS
Don't count on any Derr daydreaming, opponents. He already has committed to Florida State and is eager to build on a freshman season that included a .320 average, eight doubles and 12 steals.
Laren Eustace, Batavia, Sr., OF
A third-year starter committed to Indiana, Eustace covers remarkable ground whether he's roaming the team's cavernous home stadium or speeding around the bases. Batted .381 with 21 RBIs and 21 steals as a junior.
Michael Fidler, Aurora Central Catholic, Sr., P/OF
Part of ACC's returning haul of five starters and 17 pitching wins from last season's regional champion, Fidler, bound for Tennessee-Martin, topped out at 90 mph during summer ball.
Danny Gerke, Burlington Central, Sr., P
Looks to lead a staff that will be breaking in its share of new arms. Got off to a sound start by notching the victory in Saturday's season-opening victory against Crystal Lake Central.
Anthony Holubecki, Kaneland, So., P/OF
Split time between two levels last season, including a weekly stint as a varsity pitcher. Knights are pumped to see what the Notre Dame recruit will do as an everyday talent.
Adam Rojas, St. Charles East, Sr., C
Improved his swing and plate mechanics from a season ago, making coach Len Asquini optimistic he won't have to DH for the standout defensive catcher's spot too often. Good leader who stabilized staff during 2013 spring and summer state runs.
Jason Sullivan, St. Francis, Jr., P/SS
Versatile Spartan who sparked team's trip to 3A state finals last season will bat leadoff, play shortstop and anchor the pitching staff. Hit .333 last season while going 8-2 with 1.99 ERA in 74 innings.
Alex Troop, Marmion, Sr., P/1B
Emerging lefty from Batavia eager to show his pitching and hitting prowess for one more spring. He knows doubling up won't be likely when he heads to Michigan State next season.
Cory Wright, St. Charles North, Jr., 1B/P
Wright built on a solid varsity debut with a productive summer with his travel program, Elite Baseball Training, and verbally committed to Kansas State in November. Looked to add some offseason bulk to boost power.
– Kevin Druley, email@example.com