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Evanston’s baseball team opens a shortened season Tuesday at home against Buffalo Grove, and head coach Frank Consiglio wants his pitching staff to be in attack mode right from the opening toss.
That’s the way you win the arms race at every level of the game and that’s the kind of edge that has led the Wildkits to plenty of success since Coach Consiglio took over the program 14 years ago.
The pandemic wiped out the spring season last year for every sport and now the Kits are back in business, including a postseason series reinstated by the Illinois High School Association. Coach Consiglio will count on an inexperienced but talented pitching staff in the chase for a Central Suburban League South division championship and even more postseason success.
It all starts on the mound.
“Playing five games a week [until the season ends with the state tournament on June 19], we’ve kept more pitchers on the roster. And right now at every level of baseball – high school, college, major leagues – the pitchers are ahead of the hitters,” said the coach. “I think the pitchers will have an even easier time this year because hitting is all about timing, and the only way to get that is with live at-bats. That’s what’s missing from last spring and last summer.
“We have a ton of depth when it comes to pitching. For the next three years I think we’ll have more depth than ever before. But it’s one thing to have a ton of depth and it’s another thing to get guys out. I want to find guys who will attack and get strike one. You can’t nibble because getting to ball four always beats you when it’s 38 degrees outside. We talk a lot with our pitchers about having three-pitch results and getting early contact. We don’t talk about missing bats.”
Pitch limits that have been added to the high school ranks make dealing with even deep pitching staffs more of a challenge for high school coaches, and limiting the number of 3-2 counts as a result of “nibbling” – avoiding throwing anything in the strike zone and hoping hitters will chase – is a key to success, according to the veteran coach.
“You really have to get out there and attack,” added Coach Consiglio. “Don’t be scared to give up a hit. It’s just a matter of them understanding that mindset. My biggest message to them all is that we WILL be strike throwers.”
Seniors Joe Liss, Briggs Bossert, and Bobby Black will likely take regular turns in the rotation to start the season, but Liss’s younger brother Hank – who throws a fastball in the mid 80s – will challenge for starts once he concludes the football season. And there’s plenty of talent backing them up.
“Joe Liss has a really good mix of three pitches, and he attacks hitters so the defense won’t fall asleep behind him,” Coach Consiglio noted. “Bossert had a little time with us up on the varsity as a sophomore and he’ll attack you from that three-quarter arm slot with a fastball and slider. Black? Velocity-wise, he’s the best on this team.
“Hank Liss has never played high school baseball and it’s asking him to make a big jump, but he’ll be in the mix for us. There’s no reason he can’t be a No. 1 or No. 2 guy at some point. He has a lot of talent.”
Other pitchers to watch are junior Owen Brooks, senior Izzy Flood, senior Karlo Papa (“he had a great off-season”), senior Danny Sheikh, senior Luke Teeter, and senior Andrew Vye.
The strange calendar constructed for high school competition during this pandemic-affected year means that there’s a conflict between football and baseball. The football season won’t end for another two weeks, so Coach Consiglio will have to wait for three potential starters – sophomore Liss, senior Connor Groff, and senior Fred Eberhart – to make a physical adjustment once they’re done on the gridiron.
Groff, a returning starter, will be counted on at catcher but hasn’t been able to work on his defense to this point. His contributions might be limited to swinging the bat for the first half of the season.
“Catching is a very demanding position and it will be a tough transition for Connor, getting down in that crouch and working on his defense,” said the coach. “We brought up a sophomore [Brandon Brokowski] to help fill that void, but we need Connor in there as a middle-of-the-order hitter for us.”
Eberhart, a kicker for the football squad, will battle classmate Peter Barbato for the starting job at second base. “Right now I’d say Fred is ahead with his bat, but I really like Peter’s glove. It’s just a question of how much he’ll hit,” said the coach.
At first base, seniors Jacob Lipman and Aidan O’Hare are the front-runners, while ETHS could field one of its best defenses in years on the left side with junior Alex Vasquez at shortstop and either Joe Liss, senior Evan Burns, or Groff manning third base.
“I think Alex will be one of the better defenders I’ve coached at short, right up there with [past standouts] Charlie Maxwell and Zach Morton,” Coach Consiglio praised. “We’ll see whether or not he can hit at that level, but he’s definitely a ‘plus’ defender. So is Liss at third.”
The Wildkits also boast more depth than usual in the outfield. Black, Burns, and Brooks will share time with senior Dylan Elwood in right field, Hank Liss and Elwood are the leading candidates in center, and junior Ben Gutowski needs consistency at the plate to fight off challenges from senior Wilson Clarke and Teeter in left.
Gutowski is the kind of thinking man’s hitter that Consiglio would like to have in the lineup, 1 through 9.
“He’s been very impressive at the plate in the preseason,” said the ETHS coach. “He’s a gamer and he’s very analytical. He understands his own approach, his own swing, and that can help you stay hot over a long period of time. The guys who work at it each day and address their flaws like he does are the ones who can sustain their success. They just simplify things and trust in the work they’ve done.
“I’m just so glad the State of Illinois recognized that the spring sports have already lost a season and that we’ve been given a normal season [including regionals, sectionals and State finals]. There’s a little more bounce to their step, something more to be excited about knowing we’ll have a postseason. I am 100% geared toward playoff baseball, and our message to them every day is about playing our best in the playoffs.
“This will be a very interesting year.”