Want further proof that you play like you practice?
Look no further than Evanston High School’s senior outfielder James O’Connor.
O’Connor’s extra work in the batting cage in the days leading up to Tuesday’s showdown with archrival New Trier High School paid dividends in a big way for the Wildkits. He singled home a pair of runs in the two biggest at-bats of his career, and winning pitcher Hank Liss hurled six scoreless innings as the Wildkits blanked New Trier 6-0 in a key Central Suburban League South division baseball contest.
The victory was the seventh in a row for Evanston, now 15-2 overall and 3-0 in league play. The Kits host Maine West in a makeup game on Wednesday and will visit New Trier (11-2 overall, 2-1 CSL South) on Thursday to complete the home-and-home series.
Getting the upper hand in the conference race on a Trevian team ranked No. 6 in Illinois by the publication Prep Baseball Report made Tuesday’s win an important outcome.
Beating New Trier
Then again, ask any Evanston player and he’ll tell you beating New Trier is always significant.
“Beating New Trier? It’s the best it can be!” exclaimed O’Connor. “I’m on top of the world, I love it! This shows everyone just how good we are. Beating a team ranked sixth in the state shows that we’re legit. Now we know we can beat any team if we play our way.
“I put in a lot of extra work this past week – and it showed. It paid off in our biggest game of the season.”
O’Connor’s RBI single down the right-field line in the second inning helped the hosts build their early lead to 3-0, and he also contributed a run-scoring single in the fifth after Sam Sheikh singled and took second on a wild pickoff throw.
Brandon Brokowski (3 for 4), Braden Grimm and Sheikh also drove in runs for the winners.
O’Connor’s effort Tuesday – and in the week leading up to the game – might have nailed down the starting job in right field for a player who didn’t get on the varsity field much as a junior.
“James had a really good week of practice, and he made the adjustments he needed to make,” said ETHS head coach Frank Consiglio. “I love it when any kid puts in the work like he did, physically and mentally. When I looked at his swing, I saw it was good enough to succeed on the varsity level and I told him that, but he just wasn’t locked in with the correct mental approach.
“He was huge for us today. He put together the best at-bats on the entire team. He’s realizing just how he can beat good pitching and find success, and you have not seen the best of him yet. You’ll see him take another step over the next couple of weeks.”
O’Connor spent most of his junior year on the bench but found a role model in all-conference outfielder Ben Gutowski.
“Last year, I wasn’t as confident, but now my mentality is different,” said the ETHS senior. “The seniors last year were role models for me and I wanted to play and be a leader like Ben Gutowski. Now I have more confidence and I’m only going to go up from here.”
Evanston broke through for a run in the first after Charlie Kalil earned the first of his three walks on the day, stole second and hustled home when Brokowski lashed a single off the glove of leaping New Trier second-baseman Sam Nigro.
It was O’Connor’s turn in the spotlight in the second. Walks to Sheikh and Jared Lortie issued by losing pitcher Justin Wood produced another couple of runs, as O’Connor singled down the right field line and Grimm added a one-out single that scored Lortie.
The Kits tacked on an unearned run in the third and plated single runs in the fifth and sixth as well. That was more than enough offense to support Liss, who twice worked out of bases-loaded jams to record his fifth victory against no defeats on the mound so far this season.
Liss struck out nine, walked two and hit two batters while taming the Trevians with a four-hitter. All of New Trier’s hits were singles. Mason Denlow mopped up with a scoreless seventh that featured a pair of strikeouts.
Liss hasn’t been in much trouble all spring. But New Trier stranded a total of eight baserunners against the hard-throwing right-hander because the visitors couldn’t put the ball in play against him when it mattered most.
In the New Trier fourth, a walk to the No. 8 hitter in the order, Evan Olesker, filled the bases with two outs before Liss retired Nigro on a popup to shortstop Kalil to end that threat.
The Trevians rallied again in the fifth. With one out, Ben Toft walked on a 3-2 pitch, Graham Mastros singled to left, and Liss plunked cleanup hitter Dylan Mayer with a 3-2 pitch to prompt a visit to the mound by Consiglio.
After a quick consultation, Liss blew away the next two Trevian hitters – Brenden Stressler and Trey Meyers – with back-to-back strikeouts to preserve his shutout.
“I don’t remember if there was a call that Hank felt he didn’t get or what,” said Consiglio. “I just went out there so he could reset and limit the damage. He was a little upset, but he didn’t give up anything. We’re at the point now [in Liss’ third season on the varsity] that when I start talking out there, he finishes what I’m saying. He just had to re-set his focus.
“He’s quick to get himself out of things and he’s always been that way. He really just calms himself, and he’s such a competitor.”