High School Baseball Season Preview: Duneland Conference
March 21, 2012 11:08PM
Lake Central pitcher Jimmy McNamara pitches against Elkhart Central during the bottom of the first inning in the game 2 semifinal at the La Porte regional held at Schreiber Field at La Porte High School in La Porte, Ind., Saturday, June 4, 2011. | Guy Rhodes~For Sun-Times Media
This is the first of a five-part look around the region leading up to Monday’s opening day of baseball season. Today, the Duneland Conference. Coming Friday: The Northwest Crossroads.
Updated: April 23, 2012 11:48AM
Lake Central coach Jeff Sandor knows he has two reliable arms in Jimmy McNamara and Taylor Lehnert. But he’s a little concerned about “an otherwise inexperienced pitching staff.”
Of course, McNamara and Lehnert will both be playing Division I ball next year at Central Michigan, and McNamara is coming off one of the most dominant seasons in region pitching history (7-1, 0.79 ERA, 73 strikeouts in 53 innings), so forgive the rest of the Duneland Conference if it doesn’t feel much pity for the defending sectional champ. Chalk this one up as a problem for the “one percent” of the baseball world.
Despite losing the likes of Brandon Cloutier, Matt Siedentopf, Cody Dykema and Eddie Moldenhauer to graduation, the Indians are still loaded. It starts with McNamara and Lehnert on the mound, and the reigning region home run king, Chase Fieldhouse (.453 average, 10 home runs), in center field. Look for Austen Wagoner, Adam Fulk and Nick Kellams to pick up the run-producing slack as Lake Central eyes another big season.
“Our older players need to set great examples of how to work hard and be great team players for us to compete in the DAC and win Sectional 1,” Sandor said.
Chesterton coach Jack Campbell loses ace Jordan Peterson, but has the safety net of ace-in-waiting Jake Post, who struck out 19 batters in eight innings against Merrillville early last season. Bobby Humphreys likely will step into the No. 2 role.
With Spencer Sutton, K.J. Zelenika among the big bats back, the Trojans are a chic pick to break up the stranglehold Lake Central, Crown Point and LaPorte have had on the DAC.
Crown Point made a surprising run to the semistate last season before falling to Fort Wayne Carroll. Losing big-hitting Jose Andrade and ace Nick Nauracy will make a repeat difficult, but the Bulldogs always finds a way to contend. A mix of a strong group of JV call-ups and veterans such as Joe Hopman (.307), Jake Lindeman (.346) and Zack (.367) and Ronnie (.286) Plesac will make Crown Point one of the region’s more intriguing teams. Lindeman and Zack Plesac should compete for the top spot in the rotation.
“Team chemistry and health will be key,” said CP coach Steve Strayer, who’s gone a stellar 442-161 in his 20 seasons (10 at Crown Point).
Losing Division I athletes is nothing new at LaPorte, but the Slicers will have to replace one of the best batteries the region has seen in some time — both ace Connor Podkul and catcher Kyle Upp are playing at Purdue now. In fact, the Slicers return just one pitcher with any real experience (Ben Saliwanchik, 4-1, 2.22 ERA), slick-fielding second baseman Francis Silfa (.258) and DH David Eldridge (.352).
Last season, the Slicers won 20 games and finished third in the DAC — very good by almost anyone’s standards but LaPorte’s. This season won’t be any easier.
“Practice sessions will be made as competitive and game-like as possible to prepare the inexperienced players for the varsity season, as well as figure out the starting lineup,” said coach Scott Upp.
It’s been a tough few years for Merrillville, and it won’t get any easier after losing staff ace Nick Feliciano. Jon Feliciano will get a chance to take that role after going 3-4 with a 4.15 ERA last season. He’ll be boosted by a lineup that includes outfielder Aaron Dye (.318, 13 stolen bases), catcher Matt Warren (.230) and first baseman Jose Carbajal (.250).
“(We) look to be better 1-9 in the batting order, but need some pitchers to step up to be successful,” said third-year coach Mark Schellinger.
Like so many other coaches at this time of year, fifth-year Michigan City skipper David Ortiz is bracing for some growing pains as he breaks in a lot of newcomers. He’ll lean on senior catcher Lane Van Sickle (.308), senior outfielder Joel Hirsch and junior pitcher/third baseman Andrew Ray (.333) to be leaders early on as the Wolves adjust to life without Brenden Lomow and Rodney Washington.
“Our team will be young and inexperienced to start off this season, but with continued hard work and our strong desire to win, we will be very competitive in the DAC,” Ortiz said.
Portage has been slowly climbing up the Duneland mountain and reached genuine contendership last season before falling to Crown Point in the sectional final. And even without stud outfielder Tony Cheky, who’s now at Michigan State, this could be the Indians’ year to break through. Second-team all-state third baseman Gabe Acevedo (.423, 45 RBI) leads a deep and talented lineup that includes Indiana State-bound first baseman Dave Jercha (.354), all-Duneland catcher Zach Thorn (.426), outfielder Andrew Brown (.372) and shortstop Chris Bruno (.330). Kris Springman (5-2, 2.43 ERA) will step into the ace role vacated by Cody Jackson, with Bruno and Jercha experienced arms behind him.
“Expectations are high,” said seventh-year coach Tim Pirowski.
With all-everything Jerrick Suiter now at TCU, Valparaiso coach Dave Coyle will rely on a crop of newcomers to handle the bulk of the pitching. Catcher Joe Gallinatti returns to handle the young staff, and outfielders John Olejniczak (.358) and Greg Thome (.262) provide a veteran presence in the batting order.
“This team has tremendous potential,” Coyle said. “We will need to work very hard every day in order to be competitive in a tough Duneland Conference.”
— Mark Lazerus