If Mother Nature cooperates — not that she ever does 100 percent during the spring baseball season — Evanston’s diamond squad could play 13 games in 13 days beginning with Friday’s opener at Notre Dame.
Fortunately for head coach Frank Consiglio and his staff, the Wildkits have the pitching to prevail through that tough opening stretch even if they manage to play every single one of those scheduled contests.
A surplus of live arms on the mound should provide a major boost as the Kits try to repeat last year’s 25-win campaign and attempt to challenge for the Central Suburban League South division title.
Two of the squad’s top pitchers from a year ago, seniors Henry Haack and Joe Epler, should head the rotation. Consiglio, in his 11th year at the helm at ETHS, knows that there’s no such thing as too much pitching for any team at any level, and especially after the Illinois High School Association insisted on enforcing pitch count rules starting last spring.
Starters aren’t expected to go the 7-inning distance anymore, although the high school scene hasn’t gotten to the point where visits to the mound have to be limited due to multiple pitching changes, either. But depth on the mound has never been more important.
“The other day Joe Knudsen (pitching coach) and I looked at the depth chart for all four levels in our program, and we both said that we’ve never seen as much pitching depth in the program as this year,” Consiglio said. “Even the freshmen have tons of depth on the mound.
“It will be a grind early (including 3 straight home games next week against perennial powers Oak Park-River Forest and Libertyville, plus Lane Tech) and some of the juniors will have to find their way to help us. That’s where that class figures to contribute the most for us, and I’m really excited about our pitching staff this year.”
Unless someone else emerges — like Chris Brown did last year as a senior — Haack and Epler figure to earn the most starting assignments once league play starts. Haack led the squad as a junior with an 8-1 record that also included 2 saves and an earned run average of 2.83. He struck out 57 and only walked 12 in 52 innings on the mound.
Epler is a returning all-conference selection, although mostly for his hitting and fielding at first base, where he batted .319 and collected a team-high 29 runs-batted-in. On the mound, he did contribute a 2-3 won-loss mark in 5 starts and also added a save. The right-hander will look to lower an ERA of 4.64.
“In my mind, both of those guys are No. 1 pitchers,” Consiglio praised. “And I like what I’ve seen from a lot of the other guys so far.”
Other pitchers who figure to play prominent roles are senior Will Lucas and junior Chandler Stegen, with senior Jay Moore, senior William Peterson, sophomore Noah Leib, junior Cameron Mulvihill, junior Jack Van Ert and junior Adrian Wilburn also in the mix.
“Will Lucas has really looked good so far and he looks really confident on the mound. If he can build off of that, I think he’s got the best pure stuff on the staff,” said the head coach. “He has a plus fastball that really has some whip to it and a wipeout curve to go with it. So that gives him two ‘plus’ pitches to work with. He could be a starter, or he could be our closer. The sky’s the limit for that guy.
“Stegen can execute two pitches on any count and he spots his fastball really well. Moore was basically unhittable for us last summer coming out of the bullpen, and he’s a tough kid to hit with that slider of his. I also think Leib is going to develop into a really good pitcher for us.”
A formidable pitching staff is just part of the reason the Wildkits figure to be strong up the middle. Returning starters Jake Snider (center field), Adam Geibel (all-CSL South shortstop) and Fletcher Brown (catcher) are among those veterans who over-achieved (according to their own coach’s description) on their way to a 25-12 record last spring.
Leib at third base and Epler at first will start along with senior second baseman Matt Barbato, a defensive whiz, although senior Charlie Gruner’s stick will be hard to keep out of the lineup. Candidates to fill in the other outfield slots include senior Harry Porter, who hit .333 in limited appearances in 2017 but is still currently involved with the state finalist basketball squad.
Another senior to watch could be Ben Ellman, a solid fit in the designated hitter role after a strong summer at the plate.
Consiglio knows the talent is there but the dynamic is different with 14 players back who were hungry just to prove themselves at the varsity level last year.
“That’s the most players we’ve had coming back in a long time,” he said. “Last year we didn’t expect them to play at that high a level and they found a way and over-achieved. There is a different feeling this year so far with this group, just in the way they go about their business. Everywhere I turn, there’s a leader, and that’s nice.
“But when I addressed them on Day 1 I told them my concern is that with all of that experience we’re going to take some things for granted. We still need that grinding mentality we had last year for everything we do. My message was if you see something wrong, fix it, don’t wait for the coaches to point it out. And they’ve done that so far. They’re really good at paying attention to the little things.
“If we have that kind of edge, and we keep grinding, we’ll be a tough, tough team to play against. That’s how you get to be dangerous.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.