Baseball: Brayden Zilis’ burning hot start has Minooka feeling confident

The junior recently committed to play collegiately at Division I Illinois State

Minooka’s Brayden Zilis connects against Joliet Catholic in the WJOL tournament championship on Saturday, March 30, 2024 in Joliet.

At first glance, Brayden Zilis may not seem like every college coach’s idea of a prototypical Division I baseball player. He’s not 6-foot-1, he doesn’t weigh 220 pounds, and his bench press probably wouldn’t blow you away either.

Ask any coach in the area how much that matters when you have Zilis’ work ethic and performance, they should tell you, “not much.”

Zilis, a junior shortstop and pitcher at Minooka, has been off to as hot a start as anyone in the area. Through 17 games at the time of this writing midweek, he’s batting .430 with a 1.5 POS, six home runs and 19 RBIs while striking out just twice over 70 at-bats.

He’s been just as effective on the mound as Minooka’s No. 2 pitcher, going 4-0 in 23 innings with an 0.60 ERA, only two earned runs allowed, 35 strikeouts and five walks.

Put those numbers up against your prototypically sized athletes. Then, ask a coach who’d they rather have on their roster at the next level. For the Illinois State Redbirds, the answer was easily Zilis.

That’s why ISU offered Zilis a scholarship to join their team when he graduates in 2025. Zilis announced his commitment to the Redbirds on April 10, securing his place as a future Division I athlete. It also cleared him up to focus solely on guiding Minooka to great heights.

“It feels really good to get it out of the way,” Zilis said. “It’s a school that I really like. It’s all just about having fun now. There’s not as much thinking (about what’s next) now. I just get to go onto the field and have fun like a kid again.”

As for helping Minooka pick up wins, he’s done plenty of that. The Indians were at a dozen wins by the middle of last week and have won five of their past six games. Zilis’ fantastic run has been instrumental in all that success.

“Brayden is off to a great start this season,” head coach Jeff Petrovic said. “I think that easily can be attributed to the amount of work he puts into the offseason. A lot of kids start off slow because they’re involved in other sports or their preparation may not be as solid, but Brayden will outwork anybody. He lives in the training facility, and I think we’ve seen that pay big dividends, and he’s earned that.”

Petrovic notes the impressive maturation process Zilis has shown throughout his career. He earned the JV starting shortstop spot as a freshman despite less-than-ideal arm strength and speed. Petrovic had projected he’d eventually move to the right side of the infield due to those factors, but the work he put in to improve his strength, speed and arm strength has kept him in the shortstop spot to this day.

“He’s improved so dramatically in those areas,” Petrovic said. “When he came in as a sophomore, we saw he was a left-side infield guy. He eventually earned that starting spot as a sophomore, and it’s because of how much work he puts in.”

Minooka’s Brayden Zilis throws to first to complete a double play against Joliet West in the WJOL tournament semifinal on Friday, March 29, 2024 in Plainfield.

PrepBaseballReport.com lists Zilis at 5-foot-9, 161.8 pounds. Again, not the metrics you’d expect from a D1 player, but Petrovic believes Zilis has done well enough in the field and on the mound that he could be considered a potential two-way player. Zilis says he’s just excited to get the opportunity to play at the next level regardless of what position it’s at.

“It’s always great to have multiple options,” he said. “You can always switch to another spot and thrive there. You don’t have to think too much about not doing great in one spot, because you can always go to the other spot.”

Petrovic cited Zilis’ love for the game and his consistent joy as a human being as qualities that set him apart. Both of them expressed gratitude to Illinois State coach Steve Holm for looking at the kind of player he is and the results he puts up as opposed to what the measuring tape says.

Illinois State will come in two years, though. For this year and next, Zilis is focused on Minooka baseball, first and foremost.

“I feel like we can really make a run this year,” Zilis said. “We have four or five really great starters we could always use. ... There’s just such a high ceiling for us to make it deep. If we can pick up some wins near the end, maybe we could pick up some momentum and make a run into the playoffs and pick up a state championship.

“That’s what we’re going for, hopefully.”