When I asked Evanston Township High School senior Hank Liss to pose for a photo on the baseball diamond, the ace pitcher cradled his glove against his chest and assumed a fierce gaze, almost glowering, as if I were taking his mug shot.
“Can you try a little smile?” I said, laughing.
“Ballplayers don’t smile,” Liss mumbled, without changing expression. I snapped another picture, then he dashed off to join his teammates for the national anthem before the start of the second game of the ’23 season on Wednesday, March 22. The Kits won 10-2, evening their record to 1-1.
Liss, 17, is the team’s star pitcher and when not on the mound he patrols center field. This is his third year on the varsity squad. During that time he’s won 11 games and lost only three pitching, and batted a highly respectable .315 in 2021 and .335 last year.
On June 7, 2021, as a sophomore, in what he calls “the biggest highlight of my career,” he threw a no-hitter in an Illinois High School Association regional tournament game against Loyola Academy with his older brother backing him up at third base.
The lanky 6-footer is headed this fall to Belmont University in Nashville, a Division 1 team in the Missouri Valley Conference, on an athletic scholarship.
Liss has all the earmarks of a star. He has the stats, the skills and the spirit. He is “super focused” on a career in baseball. But as Wildkits coach Frank Consiglio drills into the players, it’s a team sport. There are nine guys out there, and no one can do it alone.
Aside from his coaches and fellow players, there’s another important support system behind him: his family.
When Liss came out of the dugout in the bottom of the first inning in Wednesday’s game against Walter Payton Prep, and saw his cousins Sophia, an ETHS junior, and Vivi, a Haven sixth grader, in the front row, he flashed that elusive smile.
In baseball, no one cries – and no one does it alone.
I sat with the Liss family on opening day Monday against the Hersey High School Huskies. Ira Mizell, Hank’s grandfather, pointed out six other family members in the stands at Northwestern’s Rocky and Berenice Miller Park: mom and dad Rachel and Josh, aunt and uncle Maureen and Julian Taylor, and grandmothers Susan Gelber and Sherry Petlin.
Ira, a “semi-retired” manager at Goldtree Realty, goes to about half the team’s games. He plans to fly down to Vero Beach, Florida, next week to catch some of the 10 games the Kits will play in seven days at the annual spring training round-robin high school baseball exhibition.
Monday was overcast and cold, and perhaps owing to opening-day jitters and some early-season fielding and throwing mishaps, the team fell behind Hersey 4-3 in the top of the third and lost 6-4. As high school sportswriter Dennis Mahoney reported, “The Kits’ offensive ratio of 10 strikeouts to just five hits, plus the fact that the Huskies recorded a staggering eight hits with two-strike counts against them, added up to an Evanston loss.”
But as the starter, Liss pitched well, notching five strikeouts with his 90-plus-mph fastball in two scoreless innings.
“They’re a good bunch of kids,” Mizell said of the team. “Consiglio does a really good job with them. Not just on the field, he’s a coach off the field too, he looks after them.” Mizell mentioned with pride that Hank’s older brother Joe is pitching at Ohio Wesleyan University. Another grandson, eighth grader Lucian Taylor, pitches and plays second base for the Evanston Orange Cats, a feeder team to ETHS.
Alluding to Hank’s June 2021 no-hitter with big brother Joe at third base, Mizell said, “To do it together was a dream come true. It was a wonderful thing.”
Hank’s dad, Josh, credited his wife, Rachel, with the best sports record in the family. She played all-conference softball for Niles North High School, where they met in the late ‘80s. Josh estimated he attends some 30 Wildkits games a season. He knows the sport well: he played as a kid and is the sports director and morning sports anchor at WBBM radio, providing daily updates at 16 and 46 minutes past the hour from 5 a.m. to noon. He’s in his 25th year at the station.
He coached Joe and Hank for seven years in Little League. “I always tried to teach the kids the love of the game, not just winning but the fun parts, the camaraderie, the spirit. I always say to them, what’s the No. 1 rule? And they wink back at me and say, ‘Have fun!’”
“That gets harder as they get older,” Josh added, a little ruefully.
That’s where family comes in. “Family support makes a big difference to the kids, knowing they have that support in the stands and at home,” Josh said. “It’s a life lesson: Win or lose, show up for family. Be there for them.”
Hank Liss agreed.
“Mom and Dad have always been supportive,” he said in a phone interview later. “We’re a big sports family. It’s great knowing everyone’s there, my family, my buddies, the best support system anyone could ask for, all the texts and love.”
But maybe a little distracting or nerve-wracking?
“Not when I’m on the field, I’m super-super locked in,” Hank says. “When I lock in, nothing else matters, I cancel out everything else. I feel like I can go in there and dominate, I can get everyone out.”
His long-term goal is to advance as far as he can in baseball “without blowing out my arm.” His short-term goal: “One pitch at a time. That way I have more control over what I’m doing.”
Asked if there were a Plan B if baseball doesn’t work out, he hesitated a moment, then replied, “I don’t have a backup plan. I’m in love with the game so much, I can’t think of anything else.”
He said he likes to focus on the mental part of the game. “Me and my dad talk about locking in mentally. I like to think through every pitch.” Before every game he tries to review the opposing team’s videos and check out its roster. When he goes to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs, he analyzes the players for their composure and their style “outside the lines” as well as their skills on the field.
He called his older brother Joe his baseball mentor. “He always wanted what was best for me. He’s 100% my model,” while noting one key difference: “He plays like an animal, with lots of energy. I’m more calm and compressed.”
Like other famous brother teammates in Major League Baseball history, maybe someday Hank and Joe will wind up playing together in the Friendly Confines. Wouldn’t that be something. But for now, for Hank, it’s one day at a time, one pitch at a time at ETHS.
With the Liss family there to back him up.