Posted Online: March 20, 2013, 9:02 pm

Panthers hope to end Morrison's five-year reign atop TRAC-9 baseball

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By Terry Duckett,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Erie-Prophetstown infielder Brandon McCullough attempts to make a close play against United Township last spring. McCullough and the Panthers look to snap Morrison's five-year run atop the Three Rivers Conference baseball standings.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Morrison's Danny Willis safely slides into second base as Rockridge's Gary Lucas reacts to a wild throw early in the game Friday at Rockridge.
For the past five seasons, Morrison High School has essentially become the home base for the Three Rivers Conference baseball championship.

However, the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers have designs on bringing home the TRAC-9 crown this spring.

Less than two years removed from capturing third place at the IHSA Class 2A State Tournament, the E-P co-op's 13-21 record last spring belied a solid conference performance, in which the Panthers tallied a 9-5 mark and captured third place behind the Mustangs and second-place Kewanee Boilermakers.

"My expectations for 2013 are to compete for the conference title, (then) stay alive in the postseason for as long as possible. Our coaching staff, from top to bottom, has the same goals,'' said Erie-Prophetstown coach Jason Orman, who returns five starters among his core of nine letterwinners.

Leading that group is senior outfielder Zach Hart, who batted .427 with 5 home runs and 31 RBIs. Senior outfielder/second baseman Brandon McCullough (.924, 15 RBIs, senior catcher Zach Inskeep (.286, 17 RBIs) and junior pitchers Ethan Howard and Owen McConnell (a combined 7-6 in '12) provide Orman's club with more depth.

"I believe we have the ability to compete against (both) a strong nonconference schedule and in our league. The trick is to get our players to buy into what it takes to attain those lofty goals,'' said Orman, who does have to replace graduated shortstop Caleb Miner's .364 average, 5 doubles, 7 triples, 40 runs and 19 stolen bases.

"We battled very good competition last season and learned a lot about ourselves as a team. We actually lost seven of our games by two runs or less. We should be much improved offensively and defensively, and we return three pitchers (Howard, McConnell and senior Carter Ames) with significant varsity experience.''

While E-P returns five starters, Morrison graduated four from its 25-7 team, including such standouts as Jacob Tegeler (.326, 10 doubles, 22 RBIs, Brandon Neighbour (7-2, 2.15 ERA) and Andy Schaver (.406, 43 RBIs; 8-2, 1.88 ERA). Outfielder Blake Blean (.500, 39 runs, 24 stolen bases), who is a senior, transferred to North Scott after the 2011-12 school year.

But with a solid infield nucleus back and two strong pitchers in senior Alex Fischbach and junior Bill Lee Greul, the Mustangs aren't scaling back their goals.

"We've stressed going for six (straight TRAC-9 titles) ever since day one,'' said Morrison coach Ben Sondgeroth, whose squad is coming off its first regional title since placing third in the Class 2A state tournament in '09. "Winning is our goal in this program. The seniors we lost were very integral to our success last year, and filling their shoes is going to be a challenge for us.

"Even our new guys coming out have seen success in football and know what it's like to win. They're coming in with a serious attitude; there's a lot of focus with these guys.''

Three Rivers runner-up Kewanee (17-12) is always trying to maintain its focus as Tyler Nichols takes over from Kirk Fristad as head coach. Among the players Nichols inherits is senior catcher and four-year varsity starter Dayton Ince, who batted .316 with 15 RBIs, 19 stolen bases and 21 runs last spring.

However, the loss of such big bats as Tyler Arzola (.398, 21 RBIs) and Ryan Matuszyk (.518, 27 RBIs, 29 steals) has Nichols looking to a solid junior group to help the Boilermakers remain a force in the conference.

"It's definitely our goal to be in the thick of it at the end,'' said Nichols. "The kids have worked hard for this, and they want to put themselves in a position to win. Coach Fristad did a great job building this program, and we're expecting even better things this year.''

Coming off a .500 league finish, Riverdale (9-13) is also looking to move up, although the graduation of top hitters and pitchers Wes DeClercq (.356; 3-3, 2.69 ERA) and Chuck Rocker will hurt. The Rams return seven letterwinners, a group led by senior pitcher/infielder Jared Richmond and junior outfielder/pitcher Jason Hoehn, who batted .446 with 10 doubles and 25 runs.

"It's always our goal to be the No. 1 club at the end of the year,'' said Riverdale coach Brian Krier. "We've got a nice core of kids to work with, so hopefully we can put things together. We've got some talented freshmen coming through, and we've seen some flashes of good leadership at the senior level. Hopefully we can continue to have that.

"I think it'll be a fight among at least three or four teams in the conference this year. Anything's possible in baseball, and that's the great thing about the sport. You get hot at the right time, and you can make a run.''

Fulton also hopes to get up and running under first-year coach Jayme Farrell, who prepped at Morrison before transferring to Fulton, where he graduated 10 years ago.Junior shortstop and three-year starter Ethan Jones is one of the Steamers counted on to help the program bounce back from a 10-18 finish.

"Hitting the ball is going to be key,'' said Farrell. "That's our area of concern, if you will. We've got to get those timely hits if we're going to decide whether or not to make the jump to the next level.''


Erie-Prophetstown Panthers
Jason Orman (12th year).
2012: 13-21 (9-5 TRAC-9), lost 8-6 to Morrison in the Class 2A West Carroll Regional semifinals.
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Zach Hart (OF), Zach Inskeep (C/OF), Carter Ames (P/3B), Brandon McCullough (OF/2B), Rivor Gage (OF/P). Jrs.: Kenneth Cole (1B/P), Ethan Howard (P/IF), Owen McConnell (P/IF), Kyle Coleman (3B).
Newcomers -- Jrs.: Adam Hayes (P/OF), Seth Cady (OF), Austin Meadows (SS/P), Koby Kuhnen (OF), Dalton Patton (OF/C). Soph.: Caleb Scanlan (P/3B).

Fulton Steamers
Coach: Jayme Farrell (1st year).
2012: 10-18 (2-11 TRAC-9), lost 7-2 to Lanark Eastland in the Class 1A Fulton Regional semifinals.
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Nick Fish (OF), T.J. Huizenga (OF), Austin Manon (P/C/OF), Colin Tichler (OF), Jace Williams (1B), Weston Jones (IF/OF). Jr.: Ethan Jones (IF/P).
Newcomers -- Srs.: Logan Schaver (P/OF), Gunner Decker (IF). Jrs.: Matt Dail (P/IF), Cody Huff (P/1B), Paul Velasco (C/OF), Jack Reed (P/OF), Kody Crosthwaite (OF), Devin Kuehl (OF/IF). Soph.: Seth Sanderson (P/IF). Fr.: Devon Ballard (IF/P/C).

Kewanee Boilermakers
Coach: Tyler Nichols (1st year).
2012: 17-12 (10-4 TRAC-9), lost 3-2 to Minonk Fieldcrest in the first round of the Class 2A Chillicothe IVC Regional.
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Dayton Ince (C), Nick Hill (2B/3B/P), Ethan Washburn (P/Utility), Ray Kuster (OF). Jrs.: Ryan Hicks (SS/P), John Moraski (2B/P), Donovan Murphy (1B), Jared Nimrick (OF).
Newcomers -- Jrs.: Dalton Nuding (3B), Dawson Nuding (P/OF), John DeMay (OF), Quentin Bryner (OF). Fr.: Zach Brown (OF), Colton Johnson (P).

Morrison Mustangs
Coach: Ben Sondgeroth (3rd year).
2012: 25-7 (12-2 TRAC-9, 1st place), lost 12-0 to Richmond-Burton in the Class 2A Morrison Sectional semifinals.
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Connor Duncan (OF/P), Alexander Volckmann (2B), Danny Willis (SS), Jamie Harden (3B), Alex Fischbach (1B/P). Jr.: Bill Lee Greul (1B/OF/P).
Newcomers -- Srs.: Kyle Meurs (OF), Brock Deter (3B/P), Nate Pfister (OF), Andrew Connelly (C). Jr.: Kollin Burn (2B). Soph.: Triston Houzenga (C/OF), Mason Sitzmore (Utility). Fr.: Joey Brackemyer (OF/P).

Riverdale Rams
Coach: Brian Krier (3rd year).
2012: 9-13 (7-7 TRAC-9), lost 4-3 to Forreston in the Class 2A West Carroll Regional semifinals.
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Jared Richmond (P/IF), Drew Beale (P/1B), Ruben Garza (C/IF/OF), Dalton Peterson (OF/P). Jrs.: Nathan Rocker (P/Utility), Jason Hoehn (P/OF). Soph.: Nolan Milroy (IF).
Newcomers -- Srs.: Cody Garber (OF), Bobby Green (Utility). Jr.: J.J. Stickler (IF/OF). Fr.: Josh Lohman (Utility), Grady Todd (C/IF), Ian Wirt (P/IF/OF), Brett Saathoff (OF), Nathan Park (Utility).