Wildkits wonder if they can win baseball arms race

Evanston’s baseball program has reeled off 6 straight seasons with 20 wins or more, an unprecedented run in the history of the program under head coach Frank Consiglio.

But uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff may find that streak in jeopardy for the Wildkits, who open their 2019 season Tuesday against Saint Patrick at the Kerry Wood Field in Chicago, weather permitting.

Success in high school baseball --- and at every other level, for that matter --- always boils down to the arms race and the Wildkits graduated their top 5 hurlers last spring after finishing 23-11-1 and reaching the sectional tournament finals.

Only four other regulars --- catcher Chris Wolfe and infielders Sawyer Brown, Tommy Barbato, and Noah Leib --- are back on offense. But Consiglio is confident that he can plug the holes in the lineup with an impressive new cast of varsity hopefuls.

It’s on the mound where there are so many question marks.

“”I think as a team we’ll defend better than we did last year, and I think we’ll have a more dynamic lineup (offensively), too,” Consiglio said. “We’re inexperienced, but we’re talented. We have some young guys who can really play.

“Last year our top 5 pitchers were all seniors and that’s an unusual situation to be in. I guess you could say we might pay for that this year. It will take us time to figure out our mound situation. Usually we have a pretty good idea after the first 10 or 12 games, but this year it might take longer. We’ll have to show some dramatic improvement, but I’m excited to see the progress our pitchers will make.”

Consiglio rarely gets hung up on won-loss totals, anyway. He knows that the real payoff for the season comes in the postseason and that’s a policy he’s always adhered to. “We’re playing for May, we’re playing for the end of the season, just like we always do,” he said.

Evanston’s starting rotation will probably be headed by two left-handers, seniors Cam Mulvihill and junior Leib. Help is also expected from senior Jack Vanert, senior Chandler Steegen, junior Renard Goodwill and junior Henry Eberhart.

Mulvihill is the younger brother of former ETHS staff ace Dylan Mulvihill and has grown into a 6-foot-4 physical frame similar to his sibling, although they throw from opposite sides. Mulvihill compiled a 3-0 record pitching mostly against Saturday foes as a junior and will now have to step up as a Tuesday-Thursday type of ace against Central Suburban League South division opponents.

Consiglio believes he’s up to the challenge.

“The way Cam has grown and filled out, he’s got a presence now on the mound,” said the Evanston coach. “I’m really impressed. His off-speed stuff and his presence have been really good (in the preseason). He’s added velocity and he has a high level secondary pitch, too. I think he’s finally starting to realize his potential.

“For guys like him, when they get that ‘Aha, I’m good’ moment, that makes them push even harder. Last year he was a kinda quiet guy who took a back seat to all of those seniors, but now he’s taken on a leadership role with the pitching staff and he took that initiative without me having to ask him to do it.”

Leib chalked up Evanston’s second-best batting average as an infielder in his varsity debut, ripping line drives at a .362 clip, but only made 1 appearance all season as a pitcher. “He could’ve contributed on the mound as a sophomore, but we held him back a little because as a sophomore we wanted him to strengthen his game on the offensive and defensive sides,” the coach pointed out. “And he was really a beast for us on offense.

“Noah knows how to work the edges of the plate and he can command 3 different pitches. He needs to get ahead of hitters when he’s out there --- he doesn’t have Cam’s velocity --- but he’s a very cerebral pitcher. He’s not just a thrower.”

Leib will likely split time with Brown (a .500 hitter as a junior) at first base when he’s not on the mound, with sophomore Connor Groff and maybe junior Mike Moore also in the mix. Groff will move into a middle-of-the-order slot whether he’s at first base, third base or behind the plate.

Consiglio’s definitely going to make room for Groff’s bat. The big man started for the Wildkits in the offensive line in football and will probably open the season at third base, although he might be groomed as the eventual starting catcher by next spring.

“Connor’s never played third before, but he’s been a very pleasant surprise for us so far,” Consiglio pointed out. “There’s no doubt that he already has a varsity level bat.”

Light-hitting middle infielders Barbato and Nolan Clarke are both seniors who didn’t really distinguish themselves last year but will likely start at shortstop and second base. Also expected to contribute at those spots are juniors Hank Gurley and David Milazzo.

Wolfe, a .257 hitter last year, could land in the outfield if juniors Eli Gingold or senior Noah Demuth can earn the catcher’s job. Other candidates in the outfield are senior Ben Baker-Katz, junior Seth Shimmelfarb-Wells, junior Josh Lipman and junior Joe Bergmann.

“There aren’t many holes in our lineup, because 1 through 9, I think they can all play,” said Consiglio. “But the varsity game is a lot quicker than playing JV and it may take us awhile before we’re able to tighten things up.”  

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