Prep baseball: After winning a regional title, DeKalb aims for higher goals in 2018

Noah Valin: 'The negative energy was uplifted during the playoffs. We keyed in and had great energy. Our bench guys were into it. Role players were doing their part. We were having fun with everyone’s success.'

Matthew Apgar - DeKalb's Eric Nelson delivers a pitch to Belvidere during their baseball game on Thursday, March 23, 2017 at DeKalb High School in DeKalb.[]

Editor's note: This story has been revised with the correct spelling of Hiawatha sophomore Ty Kilcullen's name.

DeKALB – If DeKalb’s baseball season last year was a movie, Barbs coach Dedric Wright would probably fast-forward to the postseason.

That’s when the Barbs put together their best baseball last year, claiming a Class 4A Hampshire Regional championship, despite a forgettable performance during the regular season.

“We went 10-26,” Wright said. “But during the first regional game, the sun opened up. The birds started singing, and we kind of went on a run after that.”

The Barbs won when it mattered most, willing their way to the Class 4A McHenry Sectional.

But they can’t forget how they got there, either.

From April 10 to May 8, DeKalb suffered a 16-game losing streak. During that monthlong stretch, DeKalb had a minus-96 run differential. Several games weren’t even close. Some final scores looked like 17-1, 10-0 and 14-0.

But the Barbs remained competitive in many games. During the losing streak, DeKalb lost half of the 16 games by three runs or fewer.

“The negative energy was uplifted during the playoffs,” senior Noah Valin said. “We keyed in and had great energy. Our bench guys were into it. Role players were doing their part. We were having fun with everyone’s success. No one was having negative attitudes or complaining.

Once one person started hitting or one person started pitching well, everyone got hyped up and wanted to do the same.”

Wright said his team carried that energy into the postseason and he’s hoping it translates to a better start this year. The Barbs return nearly their entire roster.

The Barbs’ pitching should be a strength, Wright said. DeKalb’s presence at the plate, however, might be another story.

“Hopefully we can get some bats going to even some things out,” Wright said. “I don’t want to rely so much on our pitching this year. … We’re a little deeper on the mound than we were last year. At the plate, we’re still figuring some things out.”

While the Barbs try to improve at the plate, one thing several players won’t have to worry about is their future. Several seniors, including Valin, Eric Nelson and Bryce Wheeler have all signed to play college baseball. Following this season, Valin is headed to St. Xavier University, Wheeler; Carthage College and Nelson; Edgewood College.

Wheeler said knowing where they’ll play after high school has helped many guys relax.

“Knowing we don’t have to focus on being recruited and worry with scouts, it helps,” he said. “We’re going in and just having fun with it.

“We want to see how far we can go.”

Nelson pointed out how the 16-game losing streak was a testament to the team’s character. Without it, he said he wasn’t sure if the Barbs still go on a run during the postseason.

“Whenever it became do or die, even though we were a young team, we showed maturity,” Nelson said. “We kept pushing through.”


DeKalb Barbs

Coach: Dedric Wright

Last year: 10-26

Keep an eye on: Senior captains and pitchers Noah Valin, Eric Nelson and Bryce Wheeler lead the Barbs’ rotation.

Also: OF Matthew Searls, sr., IF/C/P Jason Klemm, jr., IF/C/P Keegan Smith, jr.

Wright’s comments: “It’s been a few fun weeks. The pitchers have done a good job and we’re excited to see what we can do on the field. We’re pretty much bringing back the same group, and I have high expectations for all of them. Hopefully we can advance past sectionals: That’s the goal.”

The lowdown: Besides former captain Derek Kyler, DeKalb essentially returns its entire lineup from last season. That experience should have an impact this year during close games. During the Barbs’ 16-game losing streak, they lost half of those games by three runs or less. Varsity experience matters and they boast that this year. They’ll need to improve at the plate, but the Barbs shouldn’t have a problem surpassing last year’s win total.


Sycamore Spartans

Coach: Jason Cavanaugh

Last year: 24-9

Keep an eye on: After tearing his labrum at the end of football season in 2016, then-junior Austin Perry was forced to miss baseball season. Now a senior, Perry is set to return and be a key piece to the Spartans’ infield. He played during his sophomore year and even after missing a season, is still one of Sycamore’s best defenders, Cavanaugh said. He’s set to start at third base, but can be shifted anywhere and could even end up in the outfield.

Also: SS Zach Carlsen, sr., 1B Jacob Cavanaugh, sr., P/IF Nathen Shover, sr., C/OF Gage Armstrong, jr.

Cavanaugh’s comments: “I think we could be a really good team this year. We have several returners who will be impact guys; that’s a different role than they played last year. That’s the case every year. We expect our seniors to be seniors. … We have so many guys who have a lot to prove. Competition is going to be tough. The seniors are the ones that are chopping the most wood because a lot of them had to sit out last year. We’re going to be pushed at each position.”

The lowdown: The Spartans return their entire infield, but graduated their entire outfield. It will be about plug-and-play early on for Sycamore, as Cavanaugh still expects his team’s defense to be sound. Each member of Sycamore’s infield boasts at least one year of varsity experience, while Carlsen and Cavanaugh both have two.


Kaneland Knights

Coach: Brian Aversa

Last year: 18-14

Keep an eye on: How much higher does the ceiling go for senior Robbie Dudzinski? As infinite as he wants to be, his coach said. Dudzinski led the Knights in hitting last season with a .418 batting average. He’s set to bat in the clean-up spot this season, and Aversa expects him to be a big part of Kaneland’s success.

Also: C Zach Fergus, sr., CF Luke Gomes, sr.

Aversa’s comments: “I think pitching will be our strength this season. We have several go-to guys on the mound. Outside of that, we’re young on defense and need to replace some starters. We’ll see how fielding goes and what the new guys do for us. It’s tough to tell how really good you are based off taking balls of the gym floor. We couldn’t be more excited to get outside and get started.”

The lowdown: Aversa is confident in the Knights’ ability at the plate. Offensively, Kaneland is ahead of where it was last year and boasts a strong lineup with Dudzinski leading the way.Aversa hopes Dudzinski can maintain a batting average this season in the .400s.


Hiawatha Hawks

Coach: Nathan Hoffman

Last year: 5-15

Keep an eye on: Junior Ethan Hoffman can do it all. He’s been Hiawatha’s best pitcher leading up to the season and boasts one of the better bats on the team. When he’s not on the mound, he’ll be leading the Hawks’ infield at shortstop.

Also: C Elliott Mains, jr., 3B/SS Ty Kilcullen, so.

Hoffman’s comments: “We’re extremely excited to get the season underway. We’ve looked a lot better as practice have progressed. We’re returning a few good pitchers, and that starts with Ethan. I expect Elliott to be a leader at the plate –he’s had a lot of improvement, and his bat is starting to come around. Ty has looked really good on the infield and he could be a guy we turn to on the mound. He’ll probably be between third base and shortstop. …We’re going to need every single guy to compete.”

The lowdown: The Hawks struggled to constantly pick up wins last season, losing nine of 10 games to begin the year. Hiawatha will lean on its infield this year, an early strength, according to Hoffman. The Hawks won’t beat opponents in a hitting parade, but they instead rely on sound defense and search for ground balls on the mound.


Indian Creek Timberwolves

Coach: Kevin Poterek

Last year: 8-16

Keep an eye on: Sophomore Cooper Larson had some varsity experience last season as a freshman. Now, Poterek hopes Larson can step up and close out innings for the Timberwolves with his high-speed pitching.

Also: P Tyler Swanson, so., C Griffin Rissman, jr., 2B Caleb Cursio jr.

Poterek’s comments: “We’re still a young team, but we’re an improving group and guys have experience under their belts. I have a high expectations for Caleb – he’ll be at the top of our batting order and hopefully be a havoc on the base paths. He hustles every single play. Last season we made some mistakes out there, but we have a good outfield core. … We had a couple mistakes out there last year, but now guys are older, and they’re ready to step up. The outfield is going to be a big piece to our success.”

The lowdown: Last season, Indian Creek only had three seniors, the same number it has this season. The Timberwolves are still relatively young, but have more game experience on their roster this year. Indian Creek’s rotation and bullpen could be another strength Poterek can rely on. He said the Timberwolves have 10 to 12 pitchers he can go to with confidence whether it be for a start, one inning, situational pitching or a save.


Genoa-Kingston Cogs

Coach: Roger Butler

Last year: 7-20

Keep an eye on: Nick Gargane and Jason Szczepanski lead Genoa-Kingston’s rotation. The Cogs’ success will highly depend on what their senior duo can provide. Butler is hopeful both can provide several innings at a time. Szczepanski is a hard-thrower and Gargane is an all-around pitcher with several offspeed pitches. They had bumps during their junior season, but Butler is confident they can turn that experience into great senior campaigns.

Also: P/3B Alan Franson, sr., C/2B Hunter Zwiefel, jr., CF/SS Justin Peters, so., 1B Kelley Creadon, sr.

Butler’s comments: “[Last season,] we had our ups and downs but they stuck together as a team and never gave up on each other. … My expectations have not change from the start, we want to build a program here at G-K that can compete with the top level programs in the (Big Northern Conference) and in regional play, and I believe we are on the right path.”

The lowdown: Genoa-Kingston went 2-14 during its first 16 games last season, but the Cogs played competitive baseball in the second half, earning splits with half of the Big Northern Conference. The Cogs should be shaped to have a better start to this season with seven returning starters, including four pitchers with varsity experience.