TEAMS TO WATCH
AURORA CENTRAL CATHOLIC
Metro Suburban Conference newcomers will challenge for the league title, coach Sean Bieterman says, if they play confidently and don't buckle under the program's traditionally lofty expectations. Good thing many Chargers are used to them; the team's returning starters include shortstop Chris Saltijeral, first baseman Ryan Poplawski and outfielder Brandon Babler.
Veteran coach Matt Holm is up front about the challenge of replacing a bevy of graduating talent from last season's sectional final qualifier, but also remains adamant about his confidence in his 2015 bunch. The defending Upstate Eight Conference River Division champs return a core of pitching, and will look to get run support from juniors Kyle Niemiec and Luke Beckmann.
Eyeing their 10th 20-win season in the past 11 years, the Vikings boast leadership at several key positions. Junior shortstop Jack Wassel hit .327 with 29 RBIs last season, lefties Garrett Davis and Mitchell Merges both had sub-2.00 ERAs and senior catcher Nate Montgomery is a three-year starter. "We hope to be right in the [conference] race when all is said and done," coach Matt Hahn said.
ST. CHARLES EAST
Returning right-hander Mick Vyzral eclipsed the previous single-season program record of four saves after just 14 games last season. He may not challenge his existing mark of eight, and not just because the Saints will try him in the rotation to begin the year. "We're hoping we get a little more offensive production so we're not in such tight games," coach Len Asquini said, "but we're also able to bang it out if we have to."
ST. CHARLES NORTH
North touts its share of starting rotation headliners in Cory Wright (Kansas State) and Sam Hubbe (Butler), but faces early-season bullpen questions as it sets to build on last season's regional title. Coach Todd Genke highlights the team's mound and defensive depth, but these guys should be athletic at the plate, too. Junior outfielder Brendan Joyce batted .477 during summer league play.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Evan Acosta, Batavia, Sr., P/OF
Western Kentucky-bound lefty helps anchor a deep pitching staff that includes Creighton-bound Mitch Boyer and looks to be a strength for the defending Upstate Eight Conference River Division champs.
Jake Asquini, St. Charles East, Sr., 1B
Asquini's position listing may add a slash by season's end, but the Saints are hoping otherwise as he shifts from shortstop to add junior Jimmy Dale's bat to a poised lineup. Asquini brings experience at position and has honed his footwork in early workouts.
Steve Busby, Batavia, Sr., OF
One of three Bulldogs team captains – joining catcher Matt Musielak and Acosta – Busby makes things happen with his speed. Earned a team Gold Glove award last season while providing a threat on the bases.
Jason Croci, Geneva, Sr., OF
A returning all-conference player, Croci underlies the team's persistent approach at bat and in the field. Batted .343 for the Vikings last season while stealing 10 bases.
Garrett Davis, Geneva, Sr., OF/P
One of a handful of talented lefties in coach Matt Hahn's staff, Davis compiled a 6-1 record and 1.71 ERA over 45 innings as a junior. Could be part of some memorable conference duels as Geneva looks to improve on last season's third-place tie in the league.
Jake Esp, Marmion, Sr., 1B/P/OF
Sugar Grove resident and Villanova recruit will look to lead young Cadets, who return only two starters from last season. Offers Marmion plenty of stability on the mound after compiling a 3-3 record, 1.93 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 36 innings in 2014.
Kyle Khoury, St. Charles North, Sr., C
Have bat and arm, will travel. Khoury batted .362 in 2014 while leading the North Stars with three home runs and 22 RBIs. Morehead State recruit also threw out more than 40 percent of potential base stealers.
Joe Laudont, Kaneland, Jr., C
Fully recovered from a broken left thumb that cost him a few weeks before regionals, Laudont hit .339 as a sophomore. "Joe's a great leader, even though he's a young kid," Knights coach Brian Aversa said.
Matt Rahn, Aurora Central Catholic, Sr., P/OF
Left-hander from Kaneland Harter Middle School in Sugar Grove looks to lead a talented staff that is bent on building on last season's regional championship. Also a dangerous hitter among a seasoned Chargers lineup.
Austin Regelbrugge, St. Charles East, Sr., OF/P
Saints coach Len Asquini called the nimble Regelbrugge "as solid as it gets in the outfield" which certainly can't hurt in the spacious dimensions of East's home park. Mound veteran also among of handful of returning arms.
Drew Wiss, Burlington Central, Sr., SS
Rockets' leadoff man batted .381 for Big Northern Conference East co-champs last season, and committed to Air Force in August. Is a swift center fielder during travel ball, offering the Rockets options, if need be.
Cory Wright, St. Charles North, Sr., IF/P
Front-of-the-rotation lefty and Kansas State commit helped North to its first regional title since 2010 last season behind a 6-1 record and 1.62 ERA. A first baseman on days he didn't pitch (or confound baserunners with his pick-off move), he hit .347, as well.
– Kevin Druley, email@example.com