Since the summer of 2002, Lyons Township High School baseball has won five postseason championships – three summer state titles 2002, 2004, 2006 and two regular season state championships 2003, 2011.
While winning has become as routine as a 6-4-3 double play, LTHS head coach George Ushela utilizes summer ball to annually assess the Lions’ returning talent. Featuring several mix-and-match lineups this summer, LTHS finished 22-10-3.
The Lions’ solid summer run comes fresh off their scintillating spring season that culminated with a state championship – courtesy of an 8-3 Class 4A title game win over Providence.
The championship afterglow perhaps has dimmed a bit with the realization LTHS lost seven of nine starters (including three all-state players) to graduation. Thankfully, the Lions’ two returning starters – Steve Heilenbach and Keith Lehmann – comprise a terrific tandem eager to lead the defending champs into next spring.
“Steve and Keith are our top two returning hitters and pitchers,” Ushela said. “Neither guy played for us too much this summer, which presented other kids with opportunities to show us what they can do.”
Heilenbach, a second baseman/pitcher, participated in several baseball showcases this summer. The Illinois State recruit also broke his hand playing roller hockey, but he should have a green light when next season rolls around.
Coming off a splendid sophomore campaign, Lehmann also recently participated in some baseball showcase events. He is as an outstanding third baseman/pitcher. Veteran catcher Brad Taylor also returns to provide a solid bat and calming influence for the pitching staff.
The rest of the talented but relatively inexperienced roster will battle for playing time at virtually every position on the field.
“We learned a lot about our new junior and senior classes this summer,” Ushela said. “I thought our lineup came around and we hit the ball pretty well.”
The Lions appear well-armed with pitching led by established starters Heilenbach and Lehmann. The rest of a potentially very strong rotation includes hard-throwing righty Matt Robare and promising left-handers Thomas Prescott and Alex Vannucci.
Stewart Nelson, who can play three infield positions, hit around .500 this summer including three home runs. First baseman/catcher Luke Nelson, shortstop/pitcher Zach Carlson, outfielder Blake Murray and versatile Evan Booth also played well.
“Last spring, we played about nine or 10 guys,” Ushela said. “I anticipate 15 or 16 kids seeing significant playing time [next year] depending on who performs well in tryouts.”
Ushela noted several positions have four or five players competing for the starting nod.
“We have some talent,” Ushela said. “I think we can be contenders next year. We have some speed and power. Our focus is to work on playing small ball and not beating ourselves.”
The Lions’ loaded class of graduated players included standouts Connor Cuff, Spencer Mahoney, Brian Rodemoyer and Zach Remigas. While their talent won’t be easily replaced, Ushela hopes the collective attitude and work ethic of his state championship club carries over to the new LTHS group.
“They provided a lot of leadership,” Ushela said. “They worked day in and day out to get better. I think guys like Connor, Spencer and Brian set a great example for our new players.
“There’s a sense of pride throughout our baseball program. Our team is hungry. We won the state championship and players want to taste that feeling again.”
The Lions’ summer campaign ended in July with a 3-2 loss to St. Joseph in the Fenwick Regional of the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association tournament.
“Summer baseball is more an evaluation period,” Ushela said. “When the summer tournament begins, we play to win. I thought we had a good summer because a lot of kids got to play. Now they have a better understanding on what they need to work on.”