In the past three seasons, the Lyons Township High School baseball team has won the 2011 Class 4A state championship, finished second in the state in 2012 and played in the last two IHSBCA summer state title games, winning one.
It is a record of accomplishment any program would be proud of and also a tough legacy to live up to.
But the Lions are up to the challenge even though they return just three starters from a team that went 24-11 and lost to eventual state champion Mount Carmel in the sectional semifinals.
“We’ll be in the mix,” LTHS coach George Ushela said. “We’re always in the mix. The kids are competitive. They push each other and that feeds off itself.”
That reputation is not lost on the pundits. Despite having a relatively inexperienced squad, LTHS is ranked 16th in the state by Prep Baseball Report. The Lions have at least six college-bound players in shortstop Sam Cybulski (Lewis), pitcher/outfielder Max Larsen (Chicago), second baseman Jeff Tucker (Edgewood, WI), pitcher/infielder John Barnes (Northwestern , OH) and do-everything Sam Heilenbach, who is uncommitted.
Heilenbach is the team’s best player and it’s most versatile. How Ushela utilizes him will be one of the more interesting things to watch this spring. Heilenbach is the ace of the pitching staff but was the starting catcher last season.
“He’s our best catcher but since he’s pitching he can’t catch,” Ushela said. “He’ll play first base and third base, too.”
The Lions won’t lose much behind the plate when Heilenbach is on the mound as they have two other solid receivers in senior Kyle Dilcher and junior Nick Gron.
“They are both kids that have caught state championship games in the summer,” Ushela noted. “That allows us to move Sam around.”
Versatility is the key to any high school squad’s success and LTHS will be tested in the early going as injuries force Ushela to move several players around.
The biggest blow came when junior third baseman John Heilenbach suffered a broken nose and three fractures around his eye when a bad-hop grounder hit him in the face during last week’s 6-4 win over Sandburg. He is out indefinitely as doctors are waiting for the swelling to go down to determine what treatment is needed.
“We beat Sandburg, which was a great win but the loss of John put a damper on it,” Ushela said. “That was a bummer.”
The Lions also have been without junior second baseman Jack Oremus, who has thumb and hamstring injuries, and junior pitcher Quinton Hughes, who is recovering from a shoulder injury. Hughes hurled a one-hitter in winning the summer league state semifinal in 2013.
Even so, the Lions are off to a 2-1 start. They dropped a 5-4 decision to Brother Rice and knocked off Rauner Prep 18-0 in five innings as junior Jeff Wolfe, John Heilenbach and junior Charlie Harrigan combined on a perfect game.
That’s a good sign for a pitching staff that lacks a true ace like the graduated Keith Lehmann, who is now at Michigan. The Heilenbachs, Hughes, Larsen and junior Tom Hickey are among the dependable options.
“Our pitching staff is pretty good,” Ushela said. “We don’t have a dominant pitcher like we’ve had in the past but we pitch well. The key to us is playing defense behind our pitchers.”
That shouldn’t be a problem as the Lions have a wealth of athletic defenders, especially up the middle and in the outfield, where seniors Connor Pavletic and Josh Kuntz cover a lot of ground.
“Both of them run exceptionally well and give us good outfield defense,” Ushela said.
Pavletic and Kuntz will put pressure on defenses when they are on base, while Cybulski, Sam Heilenbach and Larsen will be counted on to drive in runs.
“We have decent pitching, a balanced lineup and good speed and we have kids that have played in pressure situations,” Ushela said. “It’s been difficult [in the early going] because of injuries but fortunately we have enough depth to get through it and we’ll get better once we have everyone gets healthy.”