The situation area hitters are facing this baseball season isn’t fair.
Not only are they stepping up to the plate with metal bats that have been regulated by the National Federation of High Schools to react to the ball more like wood, they’ll be facing a group of senior pitchers who were dominating hitters even with the old bats.
No team has a better senior mound duo than St. Teresa’s Bobby Boynton and Aaron Michel.
“The ball just isn’t jumping off these bats like it did the old ones, so I think you’ll see a lot more emphasis on pitching, defense and speed,” St. Teresa coach Jim Stewart said. “I think you play for a run an inning, and I’ll take my chances doing that with our pitching.”
As sophomores, Boynton and Michel combined to go 15-0, with Michel’s ERA at 0.73 and Boynton’s at 1.75 ERA. Then last year they combined to go 9-3 with four saves, with Michel’s ERA at 1.95 and Boynton’s at 1.35.
Both Bulldogs are NCAA Division I pitchers — Michel is headed to Western Illinois University and Boynton to Indiana State. And both have similar weapons — lively fastballs and big curves.
Boynton got into the weight room in the offseason and put on some muscle he hopes can help him on the mound this year.
“I put on some weight — hopefully it’s good weight — and I’m feeling strong right now,” Boynton said. “I’m trying not to think too much about the bats because I don’t really want it to change my approach. I’ve always tried to pitch to contact.”
Michel made an adjustment to his delivery in the offseason he hopes can add a couple more ticks to his fastball.
“I’m lifting my leg in a little bit different way to get a little more on my fastball, and everything with that is feeling good,” Michel said. “I’m excited about the new bats — not as a hitter, but definitely as a pitcher. I’ve always liked to get strikeouts, but now I can pitch to contact more and rely on my defense. It takes some of the pressure off. And I trust my defense, so it’s cool.”
St. Teresa has a third senior ace in Patrick Krueger (3-1, 2.00 ERA). Like the Bulldogs, Mount Zion has three senior pitchers – Steven Reynolds, Jacob Stewart and Nick Stroud — who make the Braves contenders in the Apollo Conference this year and also in the postseason, where the Braves have dropped from Class 3A to 2A this year.
Reynolds (7-4, 2.32 ERA, 82 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings last year) had the most success of the group last year, and started out this year showing why with a five-inning no-hitter against Eisenhower. Reynolds throws a crisp, sinking fastball, and he throws it for strikes.
“He’s a smart pitcher,” Mount Zion coach Matt Smith said. “He knows how to approach, attack and put away hitters. He’s a guy who throws in the mid-80s and has that late movement that misses barrels and gets a lot of groundouts.”
Reynolds also features a “fosh” change-up that is his teammate Stewart’s best pitch. Stewart (4-2, 3.54 ERA) is most valuable to Mount Zion at shortstop, but like Reynolds he has a mid-80s fastball. It looks mid-90s once hitters start looking for his change-up.
“His fastball can be a little straight at times, but he’s working on a two-seamer and his change-up is one of the best I’ve seen as far as his arm action and the movement he gets on the pitch,” Smith said.
One of the most intriguing senior arms in the area is the Braves’ Nick Stroud. Stroud has been clocked at 92 and is regularly in the high 80s. But last year he couldn’t throw strikes, walking 41 hitters in 26 innings and finishing the season with a 6.19 ERA.
“Nick has a Division I arm with a power fastball and great spin on his curve,” Smith said. “The thing people don’t realize is he hasn’t pitched very long. It really wasn’t until the end of his sophomore year that his arm strength got to the point where he started being recognized for it. He just needs to get out there and get innings. He came a long way over the summer, and he has electric stuff. Once he gets confidence, he can be unhittable.”
Two-time defending Class 2A state champion Teutopolis lost one of the best pitchers the area has seen in Derek Thompson, but always has arms ready to step in. This year, senior Mark Niebrugge (7-0, 2.26 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings) will lead a staff that includes another quality senior pitcher in left-hander Eric Oseland (5-0, 1-31 ERA).
Niebrugge is coming off multiple knee surgeries, but threw well in the fall and was outstanding on the basketball court this season.
“I’m feeling really good — 10 times better than I thought I would be,” Niebrugge said. “I feel like fall got me ready and I like our pitching. We have four guys who could be an ace for any other team. As long as we can score a couple runs, we can be in every game.”
St. Teresa isn’t the only school in the Okaw to feature big-time senior pitchers. Monticello’s Jacob Williams lost last year due to injury, but the Southern Illinois University-bound Williams has a fastball in the 90s and a knee-buckling curve ball, and he can’t wait to show what he’s capable of when he’s healthy.
At Argenta-Oreana, Dylan Sunderland is ready to top his impressive junior season (8-2, 1.80 ERA), as are Sullivan’s senior duo of Josiah Davidson (6-2, 2.65 ERA) and Colton Piper (5-1, 1.81 ERA). Maroa-Forsyth will also have a formidable staff led by Logan Stelzriede (4-2, 2.63 ERA).
Other senior pitchers expected to have an impact this year include South Central duo Luke Krajefska (3-1, 1.93 ERA) and Cole Armstrong (4-0, 3.00 ERA), Flora’s pair Paul Knapp (4-2, 1.58 ERA) and Nick Painter (4-3, 2.97 ERA), Effingham St. Anthony’s Reed Willenborg (7-2) and Windsor’s Zach Hubbart (6-3, 2.95 ERA).
Player of the year
Mark Niebrugge (Sr.) Teutopolis — Niebrugge still isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play much of his natural position in the field — shortstop — because of multiple knee surgeries last year and the wear and tear playing short puts on the arm. But he’ll be the Wooden Shoes’ No. 1 pitcher and a key offensive presence on a team that is unproven offensively.
In Niebrugge’s only appearance at the state tournament last year, he hit Prophetstown pinch hitter Jacob Baker to force in a run. But at that point, Niebrugge was struggling badly with his knees. During the regular season, Niebrugge was impressive as the No. 2 to Derek Thompson. He went 7-0 with a 2.26 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 431/3 innings. He also allowed just 25 hits and 11 walks. Niebrugge has the arm and competitive fire to improve on that and become a true No. 1 this year.
The Shoes would be happy with just a repeat of last year’s production at the plate, when he hit .433 with five home runs and 26 RBIs.
FIRST TEAM PLAYERS
Mark Niebrugge (Sr.) Teutopolis — Niebrugge was an outstanding No. 2 to Derek Thompson last season, going 7-0 with a 2.26 ERA and shutting down Pleasant Plains in the super-sectional. Niebrugge is also the team’s best returning offensive player. Of his 39 hits, 17 went for extra bases.
Bobby Boynton (Sr.) St. Teresa — Boynton has done nothing but dominate since emerging as a force his sophomore year. Last year, he went 4-1 with a 1.35 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 45 innings. Boynton, though, does more than just pitch. In right field, he’s the Bulldogs’ best defensive outfielder and he hit .340 with 15 RBIs last season.
Aaron Michel (Sr.) St. Teresa — For most pitchers, a 5-2 record with a 1.95 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 45 innings is a dream season. But not for Michel, who hopes to return to his sophomore numbers and take home another county player of the year award. Michel is also an outstanding center fielder and the top returning RBI man on the team. He hit .365 with 12 extra-base hits and 23 RBIs.
Jacob Williams (Sr.) Monticello — Williams missed all of last season with arm troubles but is back healthy this season and set to return to the form that made him an all-area first-team selection his sophomore year. Williams has an overpowering fastball in the 90s and a curveball with big-time break.
Steven Reynolds (Sr.) Mount Zion — Reynolds throws a good, hard fastball and keeps it down in the zone.
Hitters either swing and miss (he had 82 strikeouts in 481/3 innings last year) or they beat it into the ground to one of the Braves’ sure-handed infielders. Reynolds went 7-4 last year with a 2.32 ERA.
Cody Brush (Sr.) Mattoon — Brush is capable of playing several positions, but the Green Wave will use him at catcher this season, where he’ll be trusted to handle one of the area’s best pitching staffs and provide more of what he gave last year offensively (.349 average, 21 RBIs).
Nate Standerfer (Jr.) Shelbyville — Standerfer was a cog in one of the area’s most prolific offenses last year, batting .349 with two home runs and 20 RBIs. But he’s also a standout defensive first baseman.
Colby Bushue (Sr.) South Central — Bushue is the best second baseman in the tradition-rich history of South Central baseball. This fall he hit .421 with 23 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. And he makes life a lot easier for the pitch-to-contact Cougars pitching staff.
You have free articles remaining.
Connor Beasley (Jr.) St. Elmo — Beasley may spend a lot of time on the mound — he tied the school record last year with eight wins and struck out 76 in 681/3 innings — but Beasley is also a solid defensive shortstop. After smashing five home runs last year, Beasley had an unbelievable fall, batting .406 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs.
Aaron Bence (Sr.) Charleston — Bence is a power threat at several positions for the Trojans. He smacked six home runs and drove in 33 while batting .429 last year.
Jacob Dailey (Sr.) Mattoon — Dailey was a run-producing center fielder last year, batting .350 with two home runs and 26 RBIs. He’s also one of the Green Wave’s best pitchers, going 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA last year.
Luke Hatfield (Jr.) Shelbyville — Even with the new, lower-impact bats, Hatfield will be an offensive force. Last year, he hit .368 with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs.
A.J. Hyatt (Sr.) Newton — Hyatt is a speedy center fielder who stole 15 bases and batted .456 last season.
Adam Peters (So.) St. Teresa — Peters will still do some catching, but the Bulldogs wanted to get Peters on the infield where he could take advantage of his athleticism. He’ll continue to help anchor St. Teresa’s lineup as well after hitting .380 with three home runs and 17 RBIs last year.
P — Nick Gardewine (Sr.) Effingham
P — Dylan Sunderland (Sr.) Argenta-Oreana
P — Jib Carson (Jr.) Meridian
P — Reed Willenborg (Sr.) St. Anthony
P — Shawn Meyer (Jr.) South Central
C — Ben Sperry (Sr.) St. Elmo
IF — Taylor Ferguson (Sr.) Argenta-Oreana
IF — Ben Hecht (Jr.) St. Anthony
IF — Paul Knapp (Sr.) Flora
IF — Jacob Stewart (Sr.) Mount Zion
OF — Eli Miller (Jr.) Shelbyville
OF — Shay Carlen (Sr.) Mattoon
OF — Ryder Brannon (Sr.) Robinson
Util — Keith Askins (Sr.) Meridian
Cole Armstrong (Sr., IF) South Central; Jacob Barr (Sr., Util) Tuscola; Seth Becker (Jr., C) Warrensburg-Latham; Clay Brunner (Sr., IF) St. Teresa; Dexter Burgess (Sr., OF) Flora; John Casolari (So., IF) Flora; Colton Cloyd (Sr., IF) Okaw Valley; Ben Coates (Jr., P) LSA; Andy Cole (Sr., IF) Windsor; Alex Corrington (Sr., OF) Okaw Valley; Blake Damery (Sr., IF) Meridian; Brady Davidson (Sr., P) Casey-Westfield; Josiah Davidson (Sr., P) Sullivan;Blake Davis (Sr., IF) Maroa-Forsyth; Gage Eller (So., IF) Argenta-Oreana; Nick Gant (Sr., OF) Taylorville; Zach Gardewine (Sr., P) St. Anthony; Spencer Garner (Jr., IF) Central A&M; Kent Hanson (Sr., OF) Sullivan; Jordan Hays (Sr., OF) Charleston; Brylen Helm (Sr., IF) MacArthur; Skyler Henderson (Sr., C) Mount Zion; Dillon Hoel (Sr., IF) Tuscola; Zach Hubbartt (Sr., Util) Windsor; Cody Huggins (Sr., Util) Warrensburg-Latham; Braden Hull (Jr., C) MacArthur; Jake Keown (Jr., IF) Shelbyville; Seth Kline (Sr., Util) Neoga; Luke Krajefska (Sr., P) South Central; Patrick Krueger (Sr., P) St. Teresa; Levi Maxey (So., Util) St. Elmo; Ryan McHenry (Sr., IF) Casey-Westfield; Keegan McHood (Fr., P) Argenta-Oreana; Philip Meyer (Sr., OF) Tuscola; Ryan Montcalm (Sr., IF) Lincoln; Trevor Montgomery (Sr., Util) Vandalia; Ian Murrell (Sr., P) Vandalia; T.J. Onstott (Sr., C) Tuscola; Nick Painter (Sr., P) Flora; Colton Piper (Sr., P) Sullivan; Curtis Ramsey (Jr., Util) Central A&M; Dillon Reel (Sr., P) Mattoon; Woodsen Savage (Sr., IF) St. Elmo; Blaine Scholes (Sr., IF) St. Elmo; Alex Snyder (Jr., IF) Central A&M; Logan Sparks (Sr., OF) Argenta-Oreana; Colton Sroka (So., IF) Okaw Valley; Logan Stelzriede (Sr., P) Maroa-Forsyth; Kyle Stinson (Sr., C) Central A&M; Nick Stokowski (So., P) Monticello; Nick Stroud (Sr., P) Mount Zion; Michael Tague (Sr., C) Meridian; Christian Taylor (Jr., IF) Flora; Seth Trulock (Jr., Util) Taylorville; Nolan Walsh (Jr., OF) Tuscola; Clay Warfel (Jr., IF) Mattoon; Jordan Webb (Sr., P) Mattoon; Jacob Wilkerson (Jr., Util) LSA; Corbin Winans (Sr., P) Central A&M; Peyton Wyatt (Sr., IF) Newton; Neil Yockey (Jr., IF) Shelbyville; Raustin Zahradka (Jr., Util) Pana
TEAMS TO WATCH
Argenta-Oreana — Under Tom Saunches, the Bombers have been one of the most consistent winners in Class 1A. This year’s team returns seven of 10 starters and has a nice group of young players coming in, including freshman Keegan McHood. Senior Dylan Sunderland was a standout on the mound (8-2, 1.80 ERA) and at the plate (.367) last year and will again be a leader this year. Austin Harris and Taylor Ferguson help lead what is a potent offense, and Logan Sparks in center field and Gage Eller at shortstop lead a strong defensive team.
Central A&M — After improving to 12-14 last year, Raiders coach Chad Carroll thinks his team is ready to take the next step and compete for a regional title this year. The Raiders have a good defense and some solid bats including Spencer Garner (.382 last year), Kyle Stinson (4 home runs, 18 RBIs), Alex Snyder (2 HRs, 18 RBIs) and Curtis Ramsey (.356, 22 steals, which was four short of the school record). The key will be pitching. Corbin Winans will have to improve on his 4.85 ERA from last year to give A&M a chance.
Charleston — The Trojans dominated the Apollo Conference (13-1) and won 20 games for the eighth straight season last year. If Nick Wilson (5-1, 5.85 ERA last year), Aaron Bence, Calvin Bertrand and Tommy Long can emerge as at least a solid pitching staff, Charleston has the hitting, speed and defense to compete for another Apollo title and win 20 again. Bence, who plays several positions, is a force at the plate. He hit .429 with six homers and 33 RBIs last year.
Effingham — The Hearts won 17 games last year but could return to being among the area’s elite teams with Nick Gardewine leading the way. Last year, he was 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA and led the team with a .367 batting average. The defense will be very good behind Effingham pitching, but the key will be if the Hearts can find some additional pitching and offense to help Gardewine out.
Eisenhower — The Panthers started on the road to respectability last year and won five games. This year’s team returns six starters and has several young players hungry to push the varsity players, which coach Tony Fricano said will further improve the program. Alex Beck, Jason Collingwood and Chase Myers will lead Eisenhower on the mound and at the plate.
Flora — The Wolves have had some outstanding teams in recent years, including last year’s bunch that went 22-11. This year’s team is another in that line but hopes to break through and finally get a regional title after losing in the finals the last three years. Flora has seven guys who have started games, plus a pitching staff that includes five in the rotation and four or five more bullpen arms. If Flora can defend behind aces Paul Knapp (1.58 ERA) and Nick Painter (2.97), this could be the year the Wolves break through.
Mattoon — The Green Wave has failed to win 20 games just twice in the last 20 years under coach Mark Jackley, and this year’s team won’t fall short of that mark this season. In fact, this Mattoon team has a good shot at bringing home a second straight regional title with three quality senior starting pitchers in Jacob Dailey, Jordan Webb and Dillon Reel, plus a fast defense and a good-hitting lineup.
Meridian — The Hawks’ losses are major — H&R Macon County Player of the Year Luke Etnier among them. But Meridian, which won 21 games and came a game from making state, has a good core to build around with junior Jib Carson taking over the No. 1 pitcher role, catcher Michael Tague and infielder/outfielder Keith Askins. Coach Tony Millard likes his team’s versatility and ability to grind out at-bats.
Mount Zion — The Braves have a loaded pitching staff and outstanding defense. If they can create some runs, they’ll be a factor in the Apollo and set up for a long run with a move down to Class 2A in the postseason. Steven Reynolds, Jacob Stewart and Nick Stroud give Mount Zion three potential aces on the mound. If Stewart, Skyler Henderson, Stroud and Dylan Dunn can give the Braves some timely hitting, they will win a lot of low-scoring games. Mount Zion is under a new coach this year in Matt Smith, who takes over for Ben Davis. Smith, a junior high coach at Mount Zion the last 11 years, said he has a similar coaching style to Davis.
Shelbyville — If the Rams get pitching this year, there’s no question they’ll score enough runs to win a lot of games — even with the new bats. Luke Hatfield, Eli Miller, Nate Standerfer and Jake Keown are part of a lineup that can hit one-through-nine.
South Central — The Cougars don’t have a lot of power, but they have good, smart pitchers and a defense with no glaring weaknesses. In fact, the defense up the middle, with Colby Bushue at second and Cole Armstrong at shortstop, plus Rudy Hablewitz in center field, is close to spectacular. That defense and a pitching staff of Luke Krajefska, Shawn Meyer and Armstrong should mean a lot of wins for South Central.
St. Elmo — The Eagles don’t have a very big roster, but what they have is quality. Junior Connor Beasley leads a good mix of experience and youth for St. Elmo. Beasley is an ace on the mound and a shortstop with pop in his bat. Senior Ben Sperry is a leader both behind the plate and on the mound and sophomore Levi Maxey hit .370 with 22 RBIs playing several positions this fall.
St. Teresa — Bulldogs coach Jim Stewart has built his program on pitching and defense, so the new rules taking some of the power out of high school bats plays right into St. Teresa’s hands. Aaron Michel and Bobby Boynton dominated on the mound when hitters had the old bats, so they’ll only be better now. The Bulldogs’ defense will be outstanding, particularly when both Michel and Boynton are in the outfield. St. Teresa has pitching depth to play the duo out there together.
Teutopolis — The defending state champion Wooden Shoes lost nine senior contributors, including four who hit better than .450 and drove in 30. But don’t count the Shoes out for a three-peat. While the offense doesn’t have much back, the pitching staff of Mark Niebrugge, Kyle Pruemer, Eric Oseland and Jared Waldhoff gives the Shoes four aces. They won’t need many runs to win a lot of games.