Evanston head coach Frank Consiglio believes his 2016 squad is poised for another deep postseason run in the Illinois High School Association state baseball tournament this spring.
But now the Wildkits will have to get there without someone who helped create the championship culture surrounding the program. The season hasn’t even started yet and already the Kits are faced with adversity following the death of 41-year-old assistant coach Ross Freeland on Monday.
Facing a big deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning, or trying to work out of a bases-loaded jam won’t seem as big an obstacle for the team as filling the emotional void felt throughout the squad following the passing of the popular Freeland, a math teacher at ETHS who succumbed to cancer this week.
“Ross gave his professional life to these kids, and he’s a big reason the program has turned itself around,” Consiglio said. “He was a big part of building this program back up. What he gave us was consistency. He did not waver in his beliefs, and the kids latched onto that.
“Ross was a high character, caring and thoughtful person. It’s so important to have someone who helps and guides you with a consistent message like he did, someone who teaches you the lessons you need to be successful. When I was hired nine years ago he was already on the staff and right away I saw the type of person he is. It only takes a minute to realize you’re around someone who is special like that, and he made an impact every day on all of us.
“He can’t be replaced.”
Freeland’s passing and bad weather this week will likely delay Evanston’s season debut until at least Saturday, when the Kits are scheduled to travel to Prairie Ridge. Consiglio and assistant Joe Knudsen can’t wait, even though only four starting position players return from a team that racked up a school record 28 victories (28-8-1 overall) and advanced to the sectional finals before losing to Oak Park-River Forest in extra innings last spring.
“We don’t have a lot of kids back, that’s true, but we’ve got the right kids back,” said the ETHS coach. “We’re going to be strong up the middle (catcher, shortstop, second base, center field) and that’s where it all starts in high school baseball. It may take us a little longer to develop, but the junior class fits in well with the seniors and I do feel that, come playoff time, they’ll be just as good as we’ve been the last two years.”
Division I recruits Charlie Maxwell (Northwestern) and Dylan Mulvihill (Pennsylvania) head the list of veterans who will combine with a junior class that produced 26 wins on the sophomore level. And maintaining the success that the Wildkits have enjoyed over the past four years will depend on just how much the current group continues to buy into Consiglio’s philosophy.
“I think we’ve shown we have an approach that works,” Consiglio said. “We want to play defense with an attitude, and approach that next play with an attitude no matter what happens. On offense we want to do well with two strikes (against the batter) and put the ball in play. And I’m also a big believer in run control, where we don’t allow other teams to get overly aggressive on the bases on us.
“We have 7 guys who are coming off a sectional championship appearance, and 2 of them were in the Elite Eight the year before. Winning breeds confidence, and if you have the belief that you’re a championship club, that goes a long way. But I don’t feel any pressure as a coach and there’s no pressure on these kids. This is a game you can’t take too seriously. You have to keep it in perspective, and have fun with it.”
With the graduation of school career wins leader Russell Snapp, Mulvihill will inherit the No. 1 role on the mound. He’s entering his third varsity season, but only pitched a total of 3 innings last spring when he had to be shut down with a sore arm.
Backing him up will be senior Drew Martinson, 3-1 last year with a 3.50 earned run average, and junior Joe Snapp, Russell’s younger brother. Senior Charlie Bailey has some varsity experience and another senior to watch is right-hander Brian Zarky, who moved into the district from Chicago too late to be eligible last year.
The 6-foot-6 Mulvihill, also an all-conference basketball player, re-sculpted his body last summer before he came off the disabled list and his added leg strength should add another plus to his fastball.
“To win the conference we need 3 pitchers to come through for us, and to do well in the playoffs we need at least 2,” Consiglio pointed out. “I think Dylan is fully healthy again, although he’s taking it slow right now after a long and strenuous basketball season. I expect him to be a legitimate No. 1 pitcher in our conference, and I don’t have any concerns about his health. I think he’s primed for a big year and, after missing so much of last year, I think he’s out to prove that he’s the best pitcher in the area.
“What impresses me the most about Dylan is that he has a professional mindset out on the mound. He has the ability to go on to the next pitch, or the next hitter, and be efficient, and not many pitchers have that. It’s not coachable or teachable. He has the perfect mindset for a pitcher. If he keeps getting stronger, I think the sky’s the limit for him.
“As far as the rest of the pitchers, I’m excited to see just who will step up. Right now Martinson has a little more command than Snapp — he’s a little inconsistent with his secondary pitches — and one of them has to step up and be real good for us.”
Maxwell, catcher Tyler McHolland and center fielder Ben Wilson provide the core in the field that Consiglio believes will be tough for opponents to match up with, along with the likely starter at second base, junior Jesse Heuer.
Maxwell will shift from third base to shortstop after batting a team-high .386 with 39 hits, 33 runs-batted-in, and 30 runs scored a year ago. “When you look at the last three years he’s been part of the varsity, he could be one of the biggest winners in our history,” said the coach.”I expect him to have the same type of year again this year. He’s a kid who makes the others around him better, and he wants to win so badly that he can be impactful even when he goes 0-for-3.”
Wilson led the team in runs scored (37) and ranked third with 37 hits while batting .303 as a junior. Fifteen of those 37 hits went for extra bases for a robust slugging percentage of .500, best on the club.
McHolland moves behind the plate after serving mostly as a designated hitter as a junior. He hit .308 with a team best 11 doubles, but couldn’t claim the catching job ahead of defensive specialist Sam Evans.
Now it’s the rangy senior’s turn and Consiglio hopes McHolland can match the rapport that Evans had with the entire pitching staff last year, because he knows McHolland has the physical tools to succeed.
“I think he should be one of the best catchers in the Midwest. He throws it to second in 1.8 (seconds) and I think he should be really, really good,” said Consiglio. “The only reason he was the DH last year was because Sam had a comfort level with all of the pitchers. Sam was able to get pitches and work zones and he did a good job of reading what the hitters can or can’t get to. Tyler just needs some experience winning those 50-50 balls (borderline calls by the umpire) and he’s taking a lot of pride in getting better at that.”
Juniors Chris Brown and Jake Urdangen will both get long looks at first base, and Mulvihill will get an opportunity there when he isn’t on the mound. At third base, the candidates for playing time include recently-promoted sophomore Adam Geibel along with senior Keenan Micinski, junior Jay Wilson, junior Daniel Nortz and junior Matt Reynolds.
A spring break trip to Vero Beach in Florida figures to help Consiglio sort out a group of outfielders that includes juniors Alex Moore, B.J. Johnson (a transfer from Marian Catholic), Joey Chafetz and Oliver Baldwin-Edwards. Snapp, Mulvihill and Jay Wilson could also be in the mix.
“Right now we have a lot of guys with similar skill sets and no one really stands out. It will be all hands on deck until someone does, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out,” the coach said.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.
ETHS baseball coach dies (3/15/16)