Working a number of new players into the lineup, the Riverside-Brookfield High School baseball team remains a work in progress. While the Bulldogs continue to develop their identity, however, coach Dallas Till is encouraged by the team’s 6-0 start this spring.
“Obviously it’s always helpful to get off to a good start but we have a lot of baseball left,” Till said. “We’re still trying to figure out where everybody fits, but I really like our group of guys. I think we have a lot of high IQ baseball players.”
With the loss of Connor Berek and Nico Ranieri, who are now pitching at Augustana and Triton colleges respectively, the RBHS rotation had some question marks entering the spring. The Bulldogs also graduated key contributors in shortstop Kevin Fitzgerald (playing baseball at Quincy) and Brian Kulaga (playing football at Wisconsin-Whitewater).
“Those four players were program guys and will be missed,” Till said. “They all brought different things to the plate and carried us last year. We’re going to need some players to follow their lead and step up this season.”
Junior pitcher Sam Habayeb (3-0) has certainly made his mark early this spring. He threw a complete game with 10 strikeouts in a 3-2 win against Reavis on Saturday. In the season opener, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound righty allowed three hits and struck out five on 74 pitches over six innings in a 10-0 victory over St. Patrick.
Unfortunately, Habayeb suffered a knee injury recently and will be approximately six weeks.
“Sam throws pretty hard,” Till said. “I was impressed with his performance against St. Pat’s. That was a tough environment as a late night game in the cold. He completely shut them down.”
Senior right-hander Enrique Trujillo is the Bulldogs’ other top pitcher. He showed promise as a solid pitcher late last season.
“Enrique pounds the zone and throws a lot strikes,” Till said. “He’s not an overpowering guy in terms of stuff but he’s very accurate and reliable. If he keeps the ball down and lets us play defense behind him, he’ll be effective.”
Al’Lon Carter, Kenny Ngo, Asher Runyan-Randruut, Matt Armenta and Jarod Turina could contribute on the mound as well.
Offensively, the top of the order features a couple of experienced players in Kyle Fitzgerald and Richie Gentile.
As the team’s leadoff man/shortstop, Fitzgerald is both versatile and talented. Last season, he batted .374 with two home runs, 18 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, .496 on-base percentage and .538 slugging percentage.
“Kyle is an excellent ballplayer,” Till said. “He has a lot of pop and is terrific defensively. Typically he would be a No. 3 hitter but we are trying to get him as many at bats as possible. We know what we’ll get out of him this season so there’s no worries with him.”
The steady Gentile hits second, plays left field and provides leadership. He went 2-for-3 with a double and three RBIs in the aforementioned 3-2 victory against Reavis.
“Richie has been a great surprise for us,” Till said. “He’s not a flashy player but he always gets the job done. I think he’ll have another nice season.”
Senior first baseman Jack Domeier could hit anywhere in the middle of the order, while Runyan-Randruut will play third base and bat seventh in the order. Sam Mendez and Armenta are competing for playing time in center field.
Highly touted sophomores John Kosner, Howie Hatton and Turina have cracked the starting lineup.
“We’re very excited about these young guys,” Till said. “John is a great defensive player at second base and we love Jarod as our sophomore catcher. Howie doesn’t overwhelm you with his physical appearance, but he really stings the baseball and plays right field well.”
RBHS finished 20-11 last season, highlighted by a 14-4 record and runner-up showing in the Metro Suburban Conference Western Division. Along with Glenbard South, Wheaton Academy and Aurora Central Catholic, the Bulldogs should be in the mix again for the conference title this year.
“Although there are no specific expectations, we always want to compete for conference and regional championships,” Till said. “We need our young guys to acclimate to the speed of varsity level. If we limit walks and errors, manufacture runs and play fundamental baseball, I think we’ll be fine.”