Although the ending wasn’t ideal for the Lyons Township High School baseball team this summer, the Lions definitely have a lot to be excited about looking forward to the 2014 regular season in the spring.
The defending champion Lions lost to St. Rita 11-0 last week (July 25) in the Phil Lawler Summer Classic state championship game at Benedictine University. Six errors contributed greatly to the Lions’ lopsided loss. LTHS head coach George Ushela credited the Mustangs, but also acknowledged that his team turned in an uncharacteristically subpar performance in its bid to repeat as a summer state champs. The Lions finished 26-7 over the summer.
The Mustangs (17-5) scored all of their runs in the first two innings, stringing together 10 hits, a walk and a hit batter coupled with four errors from LTHS to fuel the offensive outburst. St. Rita starting pitcher Jake Shepski did the rest, holding the Lions to just three hits. Josh Kuntz, John Heilenbach and Charlie Harrigan collected a hit each for LTHS. Shepski, who earned the Jack Kaiser Most Valuable Player award for the tournament, will play college baseball at Notre Dame.
“St. Rita played well,” Ushela said. “They hit the ball where they wanted to. We just had a couple of bad innings back to back, but (St. Rita) played well enough to be champions.”
John Heilenbach, Max Larson, Sam Heilenbach (John’s cousin), Quinton Hughes earned all-tournament honors for the Lions.
Prior to Thursday’s game, the Lions’ stellar pitching staff held their tournament opponents scoreless in the previous 21 out of 25 innings, for a total of 40 scoreless frames out of 46 during summer competition. Ushela was pleased with what he saw from his team in the summer overall, as the Lions reached the championship game for the second consecutive year.
“We became more competitive,” Ushela said. “Our pitching was very good. We learned a lot, and we’ll be a pretty formidable team in the spring.”
Junior Tom Hickey, the starting pitcher in the Phil Lawler Summer Classic championship game, was one of many players that continued to improve for the Lions throughout the summer. Junior Quinton Hughes, who pitched a one-hitter in the Lions’ 1-0 semifinal victory against St. Charles East, along with junior catcher Nick Gron and senior pitcher/third baseman Sam Heilenbach have also emerged as key players moving forward.
“Hickey has shown a lot of improvement,” Ushela said. “He did well [Thursday]; all of St. Rita’s hits were singles through holes. Hughes has pitched well this summer, too. Gron caught for us this summer, which allowed us to not have to use Heilenbach as a catcher. [Heilenbach] is a very good catcher, but it’s hard to have a pitcher be a catcher sometimes in the summer. We’re encouraged about those kids in particular, they have really contributed.”
Championship games are no stranger to the LTHS baseball. The Lions have reached a state title game in four of their last five opportunities to do so in the spring and summer seasons. The Lions won spring state title in 2011 and the summer title in 2012. Ushela knows that his team will continue to refine their game and certainly has the talent and depth to compete in the tough West Suburban (Silver) Conference. Taking on tough league competition annually including archrival Oak Park and River Forest High School typically prepares the Lions very well for their deep postseason runs. Based on their returning talent, 2014 figures to be no exception for the Lions.
“We’ll have a good mix of juniors and seniors,” Ushela said. “We liked what we saw this summer. We need to be able to bunt better up and down the lineup, and cut down on our walks from our pitchers. Our defense is solid, and I’m confident that we have a deep pitching staff. We’ll be competitive, and we play in a great conference that helps prepare us for the playoffs.”