Fresh off a historic 32-win campaign in 2013, Riverside-Brookfield High School baseball coach Dallas Till knew the return of all-state pitcher Will Kincanon would serve as the Bulldogs’ unquestioned ace and primary building block this spring.
However, with the departure of so many other talented players last year to graduation, who else would step up, in particular, to fortify the RBHS pitching rotation?
The answer: junior left-hander Connor Berek.
Firmly ensconced in the No. 2 slot of the rotation behind the Middle Tennessee State-bound Kincanon, Berek has been a revelation for the relatively inexperienced Bulldogs.
Berek is 5-2 with a 2.63 earned-run average with 45 strikeouts and 15 walks and a WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 1.225 in 40 innings of work. By comparison, Kincanon is 6-2 with a 0.99 ERA with 78 strikeouts, 16 walks and a 0.886 WHIP.
While the Bulldogs’ top two hurlers aren’t exactly the Tigers’ Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander or the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, they have kept the Bulldogs afloat this season. Kincanon and Berek, collectively, have earned 11 of the Bulldogs’ 16 wins.
“Connor established himself as out No. 2 early in the season by limiting his number of walks,” Till said. “He’s consistent and gives us a chance to win every game he pitches. He pounds the strike zone and throws multiple pitches accurately.”
Fenton got a first-hand look at the rapid development of Berek last week during the Bulldogs’ 3-0 win over the visiting Bison. Berek threw a complete-game two hitter and struck out seven. He helped his cause with three hits, along with RBI singles from catcher Justin Agne and shortstop Kevin Fitzgerald.
“I’ve been pitching well and a lot of it has to do with my teammates,” Berek said. “They are making plays behind me on defense and we tend to score a lot of runs for some reason when I’m pitching.”
Establishing a reputation as a pitcher with pinpoint control who likes to work fast, Berek credits several coaching influences for his pitching disposition and development.
“Until like last year, my dad [Marty Berek] basically was my coach my entire life. I also have a pitching coach, Bob Gillund [from Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports in Lockport], who has helped me with my changeup, and the RB coaches [Dallas Till, Mark Ruge] are great coaches.”
Berek throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. When he’s not pitching, the 5-foot-10-inch junior plays one of the corner outfield positions and is hitting .364 this spring. He’s always been a winner as well. In 2009, Berek powered hometown Brookfield to the coveted Roy A. Overholt Little League baseball championship.
In fact, his overall value goes way beyond the numbers.
“Connor is a quiet, unassuming kid and a ‘team first’ player,” Till said. “He’s a fantastic student in the classroom and a kid that his peers admire. We expected Connor to contribute this season, but he has far exceeded our expectations.”
Away from the baseball diamond, Berek is a National Honor Society student who is also involved with the Best Buddies program at RBHS. During spring break, he went on a mission to Amarillo, Texas, to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
While he would like to play college baseball, his top priority is to find a school that’s the best fit academically so he can study either computer engineering or managerial finance.
In the short term, Berek is focused on the upcoming playoffs.
“I get the feeling I might pitch our first [playoff game] against Elmwood Park,” Berek said. “That’s a winnable game if we play well. It makes sense to save Will Kincanon for the regional final.”