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George Ushela learned an indispensable lesson along the way to a third state championship last spring.
"The notion of not only having good leadership but excellent followership on a team really enlightened me last season," said Ushela, who also guided LT to a state title in 2003. "Every player on [last year's] team played his role well and understood it within the context of our team. Our frontline players also accepted being pushed by our backups. We'll need that again this year to be successful."
Last season, LT capped off its spectacular 37-4 record - 17-1 in the West Suburban (Silver) Conference - with an 8-3 state finals win over Catholic League powerhouse Providence.
While leaders like Connor Cuff, Spencer Mahoney, and Brian Rodemoyer have moved on to play college baseball, second baseman/pitcher Steve Heilenbach and third baseman/pitcher Keith Lehmann return to lead the reloaded, junior-laden Lions' bid for another state championship, or at the very least, another successful campaign under the skilled benchwork of Ushela.
"We approach every season the same way," Ushela said. "Other teams know we are contenders and bring their 'A game' against us. We don't take anybody lightly. Our goals are to play good baseball, win [West Suburban Silver] conference and get deep into the state playoffs."
Heilenbach and Lehmann will serve as dual threats at the plate and on the pitcher's mound this spring. The Illinois State-bound Heilenbach hit .358 with three home runs and 29 RBIs while claiming a 5-0 record and 1.72 ERA last season. Lehmann also turned in an impressive 2011 campaign with totals of .313, seven homers, 31 RBIs and a 3-0 record, 1.83 ERA. The two talented hurlers will take over the top two rotation spots vacated by Cuff and Zach Remigas who combined for a perfect 22-0 pitching mark last season. Heilenbach and Lehmann are both viewed as premier players in the Chicagoland area.
"They are very good hitters and throw in the upper 80s [miles per hour] with the capability of hitting 90-plus," Ushela said about his two stars. "College scouts ask me whether Heilenbach and Lehmann pitch or hit. I have the luxury of using them for both."
Another hard-throwing right-hander Matt Robare (3-2, 4.90 ERA last season) will also figure into the team's deep rotation along with junior lefties Tom Prescott and Alex Vannucci.
Catcher Brad Taylor returns to the lineup. Tom Brannen and Bill Christopolos, a transfer student from North Carolina, are the leading candidates to play first base and shortstop, respectively. Mitchell Van Koevering and Zach Carlson are other valuable multi-position players who can pitch and play middle infield. Outfielder Blake Murray, the son of former Chicago Blackhawks player Troy Murray, and Stewart Nelson along with Michael Lorenz offer additional weapons for LT particularly at the plate.
Per usual, the Silver Division race will be hotly contested with the Lions, Oak Park, Glenbard West, Hinsdale Central and York all in the mix.
LT opens the season at home against Montini on Thursday (4:15 p.m.) before hosting a varsity/junior varsity doubleheader vs. Brother Rice on Saturday (11 a.m.).