With almost every starter returning from a 21-victory team – not to mention his squad’s top three pitchers, too – you couldn’t blame Frank Consiglio for being excited about the 2023 season.
But check back in a week or two with the Evanston head baseball coach to see whether he’s upgraded that description to “super excited.”
The Wildkits will open their weather-delayed season on Monday at 4:30 p.m. against Hersey on Northwestern University’s artificial turf at Rocky Miller Park, 2150 Ashland Ave. Games against Payton Prep (Wednesday), Lake Forest (Thursday) and Ridgewood (Friday) are also slated for NU this week, weather permitting.
Consiglio can count on returning starters at every position except shortstop and one outfield slot, and the starting pitching rotation of Hank Liss, Eron Vega and Jared Lortie features a trio of hard-throwing right-handers who can make it look easy on the mound.
But the veteran coach, who achieved his 300th career win last spring and ranks second on the all-time win list at ETHS behind Hall of Famer Ken McGonagle, also knows he can count on his squad facing adversity at some point.
And he’s still waiting to see just what form that adversity takes – a bad at-bat, a bad inning for a pitcher, or a losing streak – and how his veteran squad will respond.
“This is probably the deepest team I’ve ever coached and there’s a lot to like about this team,” Consiglio said. “We bring back a lot experience and this is a fun group of guys to be around. We have the depth to cover innings pitched and to be able to move guys around to different positions. We also have our top six-seven hitters in the lineup back and that doesn’t happen very often.
“Usually the biggest challenge is having to figure out where all of the pieces to the puzzle go. This year I feel like I’m ahead of the game and there’s a completely different mindset, because these seniors and juniors mesh together so well. But to me, as a coach, the game is a grind that’s more about the mental side. How will they handle the grind? Can they prolong the success they have? Can they make adjustments in-game when they have to?
“I’ll get super excited when I see they have the ability to handle adversity when it comes. The great ones handle it within the inning, before they go back to the bench. The good ones handle it in the next inning. The bad ones wait until next week.”
Liss, who has committed to playing at Belmont College in Tennessee, is back for his third varsity season and will play center field when he’s not on the mound. The ace of the rotation, he pitched a no-hitter as a sophomore and last year compiled a 5-2 won-loss record with 73 strikeouts in 47 innings and an earned run average of 2.37.
Vega, a junior, came on strong in the second half last year and finished with a 4-2 record and a 2.68 ERA. And Lortie’s stuff and arsenal of pitches would likely make him the No. 1 pitcher on most high school teams, and last year he finished 3-2 with an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3 to 1.
Mason Denlow contributed valuable relief innings as a reliever and will move into the role of closer with the graduation of Owen Brooks. He contributed three victories and two saves as a junior.
One thing all four hurlers have in common is the willingness to attack hitters, no matter what the count is.
“I really like our pitching staff,” said Consiglio. “Liss is a third-year guy whose mental side of the game is really more impressive than the physical side. He’s a gamer and he attacks the hitters. He sets the tone for us at the top of the rotation.
“Vega put it together last year and showed me some swagger on the mound and Lortie has such a live arm, he can really do some good things for us. And I was comfortable when we used Denlow as a closer as a junior. We didn’t go to him as much as we went to Brooks, but I’m just as comfortable with him out there as anyone.
“I am super impressed with the junior pitchers so far in our workouts. These last three weeks it’s been interesting and fun to see the stuff they have. The stuff is there, they just don’t have the experience yet. With the depth they give us maybe we can win more of those Saturday and non-conference games this year.”
At the top of the list of junior hurlers to watch are Henry Rouch and Noah Cryns. The ETHS coach will also try to find innings to work for their classmates, Thomas Ferguson, Braden Grimm, Charlie Kalil (when he’s not playing shortstop), and Alex Vadurmen, along with seniors like Henry Hayes, Derek Llanes and Akash Sharma. Hayes and Sharma are lefties.
“These new guys (juniors) are so talented that almost every one of them could give me innings in Week One,” Consiglio pointed out. “I think the juniors will really push the talented seniors we have. There will be some really nice competition there.”
Since Liss and Vega (third base) are also starters at other positions, Consiglio and assistant coaches Joe Knudsen and Chris D’Amato will focus on developing more depth so there’s no drop-off defensively when they’re needed on the mound. Kalil, who was one of Consiglio’s top arms during the summer season, could also need back-up at his key position in the infield.
Challenging for playing time as reserves at those spots are senior utility man Thomas Ferguson, senior Ryan Grossman, junior Braden Grimm, and senior Dylan Denlow.
Kalil will shift over to his more natural infield spot, shortstop, and senior Sam Sheikh will man second base. Brandon Brokowski, a senior who batted .309 last year with 22 runs batted in, returns for a second season as the starting catcher.
In the outfield, Liss and Addison Blough are veterans and another senior, James O’Connor, played a few innings last season. It’s a strong unit defensively and it will be bolstered by fly-catchers like seniors Jack Kaplan, Devin Fox and Mads Hansen, plus juniors Alex Hofeld and Vinnie Miller.
“All of those guys can go get it in the outfield,” the coach added. “The key for us is who hits. I’m not sure yet about some of their bats.
“I think as a team we have fewer weaknesses than usual going into the season. The moral of the story is we’ll be really good if we can manage adversity well. There are certain guys I know can do it 100%, but there’s not enough of them on that list yet for me to get super excited.”
The excitement begins Monday at Northwestern.