JOLIET – The Joliet Catholic Academy baseball team is sure to attract significant attention this spring.
When you have a pitcher as accomplished as 6-foot-5 senior right-hander Drake Fellows, the array of radar runs and notebooks comes as no surprise.
Fellows said he hit “91 to 93” on the gun last season, “and this year I want to sit at 93-94 and touch 95 or 96. I skipped basketball and did a weighted-ball program and got in the weight room in the winter, and I changed some things in my mechanics.”
Calling all scouts.
“If 20 radar guns are out when Drake pitches, that will be nothing new to him,” JCA coach Jared Voss said. “Being in front of all those scouts is nothing he hasn’t already experienced, especially with all the places he has pitched in the summers.”
All Fellows did last spring was go 9-1 with a 0.58 ERA. In 73 innings, he struck out 98 while allowing 44 hits and 11 walks. He throws his fastball, slider and changeup for strikes. In his debut this season, he struck out eight in three innings of a 3-0 win over Brother Rice.
He is committed to Vanderbilt, but what occurs in the June draft might change his plans.
Meanwhile, there is the business at hand.
“I want to win a state championship with this team,” Fellows said. “What it will come down to is the younger guys buying into what we are about. It will be a matter of doing the little things right.”
The Hilltoppers lost name players such as Nick Dalesandro, Mitch Boe and Connor Brandon to graduation, so plenty of new faces will man the diamond. Right fielder KC Simonich, catcher Dan Devine and first baseman Jack Howard add experience to the mix. Devine is in his third varsity season.
Otherwise, it’s a new ballgame.
“We have lots of new faces,” Voss said. “But they’re all good players. We’ll see how quickly they acclimate to varsity ball. You can’t keep the Dalesandros and Boes for a fifth year. Eventually, they have to graduate.”
The scouts out to see Fellows also will focus on Simonich, a left-handed hitter who will occupy the 3-hole, which he did much of last season.
“KC got on the scouts’ radar last season as a sophomore,” Voss said. “He’s playing right field right now. He has a plus arm out there and covers a lot of ground. He’s rare in that he’s a game-changer in right.”
“Coach Voss and I are in conversations all the time about what I need to do this year as a leader,” Simonich said. “Last year we had what I thought was one of the best, most talented teams in Illinois history. This year it will be more day to day.”
The Hilltoppers finished 28-7-1 last spring, falling to Lemont, 2-1, in the regional championship.
“Last year’s group was trying to win the state championship in March,” Voss said. “This year we are focused on winning it in June. It’s more of a process. The first thing we have to do is make sure we have the right guys on the field defensively. We have to make sure we pick up the ball behind Drake and our other pitchers.
“I think we’ll score some runs. That will come with the weather warming up.”
Simonich, who is stronger after an offseason of hard work, said he was disappointed his average dipped late last season.
“I want to get my average back up there a little,” he said. “I hope I can mix in a few extra homers, too.”
Sophomore Justin Conant and freshman Jared Cushing have been tried at shortstop early on. Junior Michael O’Brien and senior Joe Buhay are candidates at second base, while junior Jack Surin and senior Marcus Luevano will get shots at third base.
Senior Mark Sienko, injured all of last season, is in center field. He was the center fielder and leadoff man on lower levels his freshman and sophomore seasons. Junior Sam Seneker has been in left early on. The bat of junior catcher Jack Naal may be in play more often than not.
“We have a lot of brand-new faces, and I’m excited to see them on the field,” Simonich said. “It was exciting to see Cushing and Conant do real well (against Brother Rice).”
Fellows, who also will play some first base and designated hitter, will be backed up on the pitching staff by what Voss terms “some interesting arms.” That group includes senior right-handers Jared Jones and George Manikas and junior lefties Al Hartsell and Antonio Saldana.
“I think Hartsell and Saldana are going to be really good,” Voss said.