Posted Online: May 18, 2011, 6:46 pm

Braves take top seed into World Series qualifier

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By Tom Johnston,

Maybe nothing is more representative of this year's Black Hawk College baseball team than the recent Arrowhead Conference all-league voting.

The Braves have relied on great depth and balance en route to their 44-7 record and No. 4 NJCAA national ranking. They used awesome pitching, an explosive offense and the best defense in the country statistically to win their 21st league crown and third straight under coach Arnie Chavera.

Not only did the Braves have seven players selected to the All-Arrowhead team, but two of them – sophomore pitcher Chris Burgess and sophomore outfielder Mark VanNatta -- were among the three to share league MVP honors. League coaches make their All-Arrowhead selections and then the top vote-getters from four positions – infield, outfield, pitcher and catcher – are put up for an MVP vote. Burgess (3-1, 1.75 ERA in league games) and VanNatta (.426, league-best with nine doubles and three triples and 19 RBIs) shared the honor with Kishwaukee's Jake Lueneburg. Each standout received two MVP votes from the league's six coaches.

Also earning All-Arrowhead honors were 3B Kendall Hocker (Fr., Macomb), who led the league in hitting with a .475 mark; catchers Trevor Kenyon (Fr., Davenport Central) and Kendall Patrick (Fr., Mitchell, SD); and pitchers Mike Fisher (Fr., Rock Island) and Jason Smith (Fr., Morrison).

Those seven first-teamers for the 18-2 league champs were two more than runner-up Kishwaukee (13-7).

"No, there's really no personal pride in that,'' said Chavera. "We work hard and prepare our players better than any other team in the conference. We recruit harder and we hold the bar higher. At the end of the day, the guys put in a lot of work.''

Chavera and the Braves hope that hard work pays off in the next few days as they are in Crystal Lake playing for the school's first trip to the NJCAA World Series. The top-seeded Braves open double-elimination Region IV Regional play at McHenry County Community College today at noon against fifth-seeded Elgin (40-13). In the opposite bracket are second-seeded Madison (39-14) and third-seeded Kankakee (40-17).

Burgess will get the start in today's opener, according to Chavera.

An opening win puts BHC in a winners' bracket game at noon on Friday, and the coach said he might roll the dice and go with No. 4 starter Keelan Prince in that game and hold No. 2 man Adam Karger for Saturday's first championship game. All-Arrowhead selections Smith and Fisher then would be available for a second championship game, if it's needed.

"It's a good field,'' said Chavera, knowing his team carries a huge target as the No. 1 seed. "Madison has 39 wins and the other two are perennial powers in the region.''

Chavera, though, hopes that his team's aggressive style of play can make a difference in a stacked field in which he says the four teams are pretty evenly matched. During the regular season, the Braves split with Madison, swept Elgin and were swept by Kankakee in the regular-season finale when the Braves were without three regulars.

One of those, Alex Slaby, returned last weekend. There was hope Mike Budka (broken hand) would return this week, but he has been diagnosed with mononucleosis and is done. Kendall, who broke his leg, is scheduled for surgery on Monday and is done.