Sandwich baseball went through an extreme youth movement the past two seasons out of necessity, and took its lumps in the process.
The Indians had as many as four freshman in their lineup two years ago. Sandwich won a combined three games during that time, going 1-22 last year.
But the kids appear to have come of age.
Sandwich won its first five games of the young season before a hard-fought 12-9 loss March 30 at Reed-Custer. If that sounds like a surprise, it isn’t to veteran Indians’ coach Jason VanPelt. He started to see the fruits of his team’s labor realized at the end of last year.
“At the end of last season, we started playing really well. These young guys were starting to be varsity players,” VanPelt said. “We had a big win against Spring Valley Hall, we had confidence going into regionals and got beat in a close one. I was confident that even having just that one win we could make some noise.”
The Indians this spring returned eight starters. Five Sandwich players are in their third varsity season.
“We were ready to go coming into preseason practice, everybody knew what was going on so we can get more detailed in practices and can put in some more offensive plays,” VanPelt said. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence, the defense has been very good and we’re pitching good for the most part.”
On March 27, Hunter Pavia threw a complete-game six-hitter with five strikeouts to beat DeKalb 3-2. Two days later, Chance Lange allowed two unearned runs on three hits with seven strikeouts over six innings to beat Richmond-Burton, last year’s Class 2A state runner-up, 8-2.
“They lost a lot of their guys, but that’s still a very solid program,” VanPelt said. “Chance pitched really well against them. If we continue to throw strikes and play defense we’re going to score some runs.”
Lange, who struggled quite a bit offensively last year while still playing good defense, is off to a hot start at the plate. So is Taylor Lissman, a junior and third-year starter. Taylor Adams struggled on the mound at Reed-Custer, but at the plate had five RBIs with the tying three-run homer in an eventual 12-9 loss.
“I had a lot of confidence that that experience the last two years would translate to success,” VanPelt said. “These guys were forced to play varsity baseball as freshmen, and said the heck with it. In our conference they were facing guys throwing 90, they were overmatched but credit to them. Even though we weren’t winning many games, they continued to work at their craft and got better. These guys love playing baseball and they’re good.”
Big turnarounds are nothing new in the case of Lange and Austin Marks, who VanPelt called one of the best center fielders in the area.
Both were starters on the Sandwich basketball team that went from 1-29 a season ago to 20-13 this recently completed season.
“That turnaround in basketball, a lot of people were surprised but I wasn’t surprised,” VanPelt said. “Sandwich athletics fell on some hard times, COVID hit us particularly hard, but I’m proud of the work of the athletic department and the coaches to get things turned around.”
VanPelt realizes the upcoming Interstate 8 Conference schedule will be no picnic with the likes of Sycamore and Kaneland, but he is not conceding anything.
“We don’t know what our top limit is. We can be very good,” he said. “Wins may be tough to come by in conference but we’ll be competitive, and we’ll certainly be prepared.”
Oswego navigating tough schedule, expectations
Oswego, unlike Sandwich, entered this season with big expectations coming off of how last year ended.
The Panthers last spring reached their first sectional final since 2009. Virtually its entire lineup returned, led by Xavier recruit Tyler Stack at catcher, along with two of three all-conference pitchers. Oswego is on opponents’ radar.
“The way we presented it to our kids is teams are wanting to play us and wanting to beat us. We have never had that in our years here,” Oswego coach Joe Giarrante said. “It is a good feeling, playing with a lot of confidence. We are realizing that things aren’t going to be as easy as it would have been. It’s a good challenge to have.”
Oswego has navigated somewhat uneven play to a 5-3 start to the season. The Panthers beat Glenbard North 4-3 despite walking 11 batters and hitting two more. On March 30, an error opened the door to a three-run Bolingbrook seventh to force extra innings, but Chase Gerwig singled in Troy Vosburgh in the 10th for an 8-7 win. On March 27, facing Tennessee-bound pitcher Aidan Hayse and defending Class 2A champion Joliet Catholic, Oswego scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh of an eventual 7-5 loss in eight innings.
“We fought,” Giarrante said. “We got a lot of work to do to clean things up, trying to find some guys to fit in pitching-wise. You can never have enough arms. We’re navigating through a pretty tough opening schedule and starting to grow. We know where we want to be at the end of the season.”
All-conference pitchers Bryson Mello and Eddie Scaccia are a good anchor, but Giarrante is still piecing together the rest of his staff with two weeks of Southwest Prairie Conference crossovers upcoming.
“After those two guys we really don’t have a lot of experience on the mound,” Giarrante said. “We have some seniors. Dylan McGee closed the Bolingbrook game with three shutout innings, Owen Corbet has pitched well. We have guys capable of doing it, it’s a matter of putting their mind to it.”