In 2010, the Lyons Township then junior-laden baseball team dropped five West Suburban (Silver) Conference games while holding a lead just one out away from victory. This year, essentially the same group lost only four games all season offset in historic fashion by a school-record 37 wins, a conference crown, the program’s 10th sectional title and third state championship.
Obviously, the poised Lions, featuring 16 seniors, turned a definitive corner en route to titletown this spring. Lyons head coach George Ushela offered a simple explanation for his team’s maturation over a year’s time.
“Our players had a taste that they can play with anybody [in 2010],” Ushela said, “but we had to learn how to finish games. We did a great job of finishing games this season. The focus was on what our players can control. It didn’t matter who we were playing. It mattered how we were playing.”
The Lions truly earned distinction as the state’s best, knocking off Catholic League powerhouses Providence and Mount Carmel in the Class 4A State Championship and semifinal, respectively.
The highly-anticipated match-up against Providence essentially pitted the top teams in the state against each other. Upon LT’s 8-3 victory, both clubs finished 37-4 on the season.
Lyons ace Connor Cuff limited the Celtics, who had seven Division I players in their starting lineup, to five hits while striking out six. The Penn-bound right-hander also helped his cause at the plate by driving in four runs. His 96-pitch gem baffled the Celtics, who had been averaging 9.2 runs per game.
While reasons run aplenty why LT won its third state baseball championship, the dominant pitching duo of Cuff and Zach Remigas served as a strong anchor for success. Cuff, who finished a perfect 19-0 during his two-year varsity career, went 11-0 with a 1.22 earned-run average his senior year, while Remigas finished 11-0 with a 0.66 ERA.
“We had a deep pitching rotation with me, Zach Remigas, Keith Lehmann and Steve Heilenbach,” said Cuff, who also batted .393 with eight homers and 40 RBIs this season. “I knew we would be in every game with a chance to win because of our pitching depth. I’ve never been on a team where everybody got along as well as we did.”
Cuff employed an aggressive mindset on the mound and three quality pitches – a two-seam fastball, changeup and curveball – that he was willing to throw in any pitch count.
“I tried to always get ahead of hitters,” he said. “It was important for me to be able to pitch backwards. By that I mean throwing curveballs and off-speed pitches for strikes in counts like 2-0, 3-1.”
In addition to its stellar pitching rotation, LT provided plenty of thunder in the lineup. Senior Spencer Mahoney and junior Steve Heilenbach served as effective top-of-the-order “table setters” for hitters like Brian Rodemoyer, Cuff, Lehmann, Mike Pett, Dan Zehe, Brian Kelley and Tom Walsh.
“I think we realized we had a pretty explosive lineup when we had 10-run innings in both games [of a doubleheader] against Downers Grove North,” Ushela said. “It wasn’t like Downers [Grove North] was a pushover; they played us even over four innings in one of the games.”
Lyons also swept an excellent Leyden team in a conference crossover doubleheader, paving the way to a 17-1 overall conference mark.
“When the state playoffs started, we noticed our conference [teams] weren’t losing too many games,” Cuff said. “Glenbard West, Oak Park and Leyden were winning in the postseason and we dominated our conference during the regular season. We felt like if we had an edge on those teams which were doing so well that we could compete with any team.”
The Lions’ most remarkable victory occurred on April 29 against perennial league rival Oak Park. Lyons belted eight homers, including three in a row against the Huskies.
“Oak Park is never a slouch,” Ushela said. “They made it to a sectional final this season and always have an excellent team.”
Another impressive accomplishment for LT was not losing consecutive games all season.
“Our motto this season was ‘one team, one speed’,” Ushela said. “That’s the way our team played the whole year. Chemistry just naturally comes. It’s tied in with character and respect for each other, which all our players showed this season.”
Kelley, a three-sport athlete at LT, ended his high school career perfectly after deep postseason runs with the Lions’ football and basketball teams.
“We kind of joked around earlier in the year that we would be state champions,” he said. “We knew that we had a good team, but maybe not this good. It’s really special because everybody pulled for each other.”
Ushela also experienced a dream sports year. He was also an assistant coach on the LT girls volleyball state title team this year.
“It’s a special feeling of being on top of the world. Well, at least on top of the state,” he joked. “But it really feels like we’re on top of the world.”