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The INSIDER: Baseball

Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

SPOTLIGHT ON ...

Robert Johnson
Indian Creek, senior, catcher
Because he’s managed the pitching staff and played solid defense, Johnson has been a key component in the Timberwolves’ run to a third-place finish in the Little Ten Conference. But lately, Johnson has given the bottom part of the order an unexpected offensive lift.

“Robert has always played unbelievable defense,” Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz said. “But he’s starting to hit now. He’s had two hits in each of our last three games and has really strengthened the bottom of the order.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Batavia at Kaneland, 7 p.m. Friday at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva The proceeds from the 2012 installment of Pack the Park will help defer the medical costs Kaneland teacher Bridget Sweeney has incurred in her yearlong battle with cancer that has kept her from teaching.

The game is also a dual senior night for the old Western Sun Conference foes and will give the Knights, newly crowned Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference champions a quality tuneup before hosting next week's Class 3A regional. 

POWER RANKINGS

1. Kaneland (20-9, 13-2 Northern Illinois Big 12): Knights learn to close – they went 4-6 to finish the 2011 NI Big 12 season – this year’s torrid stretch nets title. 2. Sycamore (17-11, 7-8 NI Big 12): Spartans do Knights favor by taking one game in Yorkville series. 3. Hinckley Big-Rock (20-10, 14-2 Little Ten): Royals want payback against Hiawatha this week. 4. DeKalb (14-14-1, 7-8 NI Big 12): Rochelle sweep was as much of a challenge as a midweek scrimmage with the junior varsity. 5. Indian Creek (14-12, 11-5 Little Ten): Timberwolves a darkhorse to win the Class 1A H-BR regional. 6. Hiawatha (17-10, 8-8 Little Ten): A 4-2 win against H-BR prevents the Royals from sharing Little Ten title with Somonauk. 7. Genoa-Kingston (6-21, 2-8 Big Northern): Cogs swept Plano in doubleheader to close out a rough regular season.

NOTEBOOK: Kaneland undetectable in title defense

Operating in near obscurity has suited Kaneland baseball coach Brian Aversa just fine.

Even though Kaneland is the defending Class 3A state champion and just won the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference outright after sharing it last season, the Knights are situated on the edge of the Tri-Cities and a 40-plus-mile ride from the tentacular grasp of Chicago media outlets.

There hasn’t been a big buzz despite Kaneland being in a full sprint to the finish line.

“We were pegged to be rebuilding this year and maybe be in the middle part of the conference,” Aversa said. “We’ve had some guys really step up the last few games to win a good conference. At four of our last five games there’s only been one reporter present. There are a lot of people that don’t know our story. We are kind of flying under the radar. We’ve been able to lay low and sneak up on teams.”

The injury to No. 1 pitcher Drew Peters has highlighted the Knights’ pitching depth, as John Hopkins,

Trevor Stork, Brian Van Bogaert, Jordan Jones and Matt Limbrunner have given Aversa five solid options on the mound. The Knights were no-hit in Game 1 with Morris last week, yet scored on a balk for a 1-0 win.

“Our pitching has been phenomenal,” Aversa said. “We won conference despite missing the guy we thought was our No. 1. Our pitching depth has been a tremendous luxury.”

Confidence builds at Indian Creek

With the rebuilding project at Indian Creek moving at light speed, the Timberwolves felt prepared entering Monday to compete in the Class 1A Hinckley-Big Rock Regional.

When Hiawatha beat H-BR, 4-2, on Friday to deny the Royals’ repeat bid to share the Little Ten Conference title with Somonauk, it illustrated the margin for error the teams should encounter this week.

“We keep talking about the importance of pitching and defense,” Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz said. “We feel like if we pitch a little better and make a few less errors, we have a shot to win any game we play in. Our goal is to be better in both categories and at the end of the game we should be right there.” Easing up in Sycamore

Maybe there was too much tension in the middle of the Spartans’ lineup. After a 3-2 series-opening win against Yorkville on Tuesday in which Matt Godinsky pitched a complete game, thanks to his game-tying single and Clark O’Donnell’s clutch, game-winning RBI, Sycamore couldn’t solve the Foxes’ pitchers.

Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh said the Spartans had Game 2, but they gave it away late. And despite having the heart of the lineup up in the right situations, Sycamore couldn’t produce to win the last two NI Big 12 games.

But in a 15-5 win against Streator’s No. 1 pitcher on Saturday, the Spartans’ offense erupted.

“Maybe there was a lot of pressure off us,” Cavanaugh said. “We played great. It was a bit of a sluggish start, but then we just started to hammer the ball.”

Knights to raise funds for teacher

Friday night’s baseball game between Kaneland and Batavia at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva will include a fundraiser for Kaneland teacher Bridget Sweeney, who is fighting cancer. The sophomore game will start at 4:30 p.m., and the varsity game – senior night for both programs – is set for 7.

Last summer, Sweeney found out her cancer had returned after the birth of her second child. Since then, according to a Kaneland news release, “she has had to have an aggressive removal of all soft tissue with tendons and undergo brachytherapy, which is a form of radiotherapy to help kill remaining cancer cells. She has had two of three surgeries to rebuild her arm and for the last few months she has been healing from the grafts and going to therapy to strengthen her leg (donor site) and improve her hand function.”

Kaneland seniors each year decide which charity or organization will receive a donation from the program, and this year they decided to help the Sweeney family with its medical expenses.

All players and families from the Kaneland school district feeder baseball program are invited to attend the game. Admission charges are $5 for adults, $4 for high school and middle school students, $3 for elementary students and all children under age 3 are free.
• Jay Schwab contributed to this report.

VIEWS: Glue needed for postseason success

Deep playoff runs are filled with hero-making moments.

For every No. 1 starter who twirls a complete-game gem or cleanup hitter who launches a prodigious home run, there’s a role player with a stat line buried deep within the box score. These players are a team’s glue. They connect the heroes to their seminal moments and every now and then, write their way into a headline.

Sycamore catcher Clark O’Donnell had a senior season-defining moment when he collected the game-winning RBI in a series-opening win against Yorkville on Tuesday.

As a catcher, O’Donnell doesn’t get to leave the game with a clean uniform or without a bruise. He goes from standing to squatting uncomfortably on his haunches more than 100 times a game. He manages the pitching staff and, like Robert Johnson of Indian Creek, isn’t expected to power his team’s offense. Any production is a bonus.

Yet, that’s exactly what O’Donnell does in vital situations – provide the Spartans with what they need.

“Clark has been a leader,” Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh said. “He always plays hard, heads-up baseball. He seems to always be right in the middle of everything. He’s a situational hitter that can deliver what you need.”

With an affable personality, O’Donnell has embraced his role. Cavanaugh described him as unselfish, a word DeKalb coach Jake Howells also used to describe sophomore center fielder Danny Petras.

“Being the No. 2 hitter kind of lends Danny to that role,” said Howells, whose team went 4-0 last week. “He comes up to bat without a lot of RBI chances. But if we need someone to get a bunt down or move a runner over, he’s the guy I want up there. He’s not flashy, but he’s always right in the middle of everything.

“He might not always be in the paper, but the guys in the dugout know what he’s done. He trades headlines for high-fives because of his unselfish play.”

Whether its Jordan Jones, Ray Barry or Joey Pollastrini at Kaneland, O’Donnell at Sycamore, or Petras at DeKalb, if their teams are going to have a deep Class 3A playoff run when regionals get started next week, they’ll need their glue players to hold things together.

• James Nokes is a contributor to the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at sports@daily-chronicle.com.

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