GEORGETOWN — Maybe it was the impromptu practice session immediately following a frustrating performance three weeks ago.
Perhaps it was the ingenuity of the coaching staff to take the risk of initiating a creative starting pitching strategy.
It could be the all-around explosiveness of the bats and the improved approaches at the plate.
It might be one of the team’s main sources of energy, freshman Drew Duden, constantly hollering positives from the dugout.
Or maybe it’s been the years of chemistry and camaraderie built up between a group of players, many of whom hail from the Gifford area, who consider each other best friends.
A lot of maybes. But one thing is definite…
…the Rantoul baseball team has caught absolute fire. And the heat wave comes at the perfect time, as its first-round postseason game against Centennial approaches on Monday (4:30 p.m. in Rantoul to kick off the Class 3A Champaign Central Regional).
The Eagles (15-8) have won seven consecutive games and have been victorious in nine of the last 10 contests, and each of those factors have played a key role.
When they fell to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley at home, 10-3, on April 25, Jon Donovan was not happy. The club’s performance was far from up to par to the standards set by Rantoul’s eighth-year head coach. So Donovan wanted to make that crystal clear.
He told his team to grab the "L screen" used for batting practice and ushered them off for nearly two hours of batting practice under the lights at Wabash Park.
"Obviously, none of us wanted to stay after for an hour-and-a-half or two hours," Rantoul senior John Frerichs said. "But after that performance (we needed it). Our coaches know how much talent we have on this team and how much run production we can produce. Staying after and getting more cuts kind of flipped a switch, and we started saying, ‘we’ve got to find a way to kick things up.’
"Going into it, we were already upset at the loss. We knew we needed to kick it up a lot more. People were a little upset, obviously, after the loss and didn’t want to be there for an extra two hours. But I think, afterward, it helped with building confidence and realizing what we had to do to get the job done."
The effects of that move were immediately apparent, and they have been long-lasting. The Eagles won their next two games (a 4-1 win over Illinois Valley Central and 9-5 over Unity) before losing 11-2 to Mattoon in a game that was tied at 2 in the sixth inning.
And following a 5-3 win over Clinton on Monday, Rantoul has now won seven straight, including defeating two Illini Prairie Conference opponents. An 8-4 victory over Bloomington Central Catholic last Wednesday was the cherry on top of a 6-3 finish in the conference’s inaugural season.
Clearly, that late-night practice was a turning point … Or was it?
"Not really," Donovan said. "The turning point can be any time during the season. I just look at it as a journey, and we’re trying to get to a destination from the beginning to the end. There’s no one individual game or practice that’s going to turn it around for us. It’s a culmination of everybody (coming together)."
But there are differing opinions, of course.
"This is where I get to disagree as an assistant coach," Allen Jones Jr. said. "This is where I get to say, (it makes a big difference) when you have a head coach who gracefully handles a situation and takes the kids out and gives them confidence and gives them a chance to hit and shows them they didn’t mess up — that they were just going against a pitcher (GCMS’ Tyler Walker) that had his A-game — and shows them positive reinforcement in practice, and it’s not discipline. And they’re out there having fun and learning.
What kid wants to stay two hours after a baseball game that they just lost? I give credit to a creative coach. He doesn’t (give himself credit), but I’m telling you that had a lot to do with it. It is a journey, but that was another positive step in this journey we’ve had."
What both coaches do agree on, though, is that one of the main reasons for the success of the creative move is the personalities and attitudes of the players on this year’s squad. Instead of looking at it as a grueling, negative experience, they rallied and realized it was a necessary tactic.
"(Jones Jr.) called me the next day and said, ‘You know, coach, they actually enjoyed doing that after the game,’" Donovan said. "It’s not like they were putting their heads down. It was not punishment. I was just not happy with their performance. We didn’t play bad at all. We just got our butts kicked that day, and I just wanted them to know the level of performance they were at that day was not acceptable at all."
Leadership, positivity and chemistry
Nolan Roseman, says teammate Nolan Riddle, was one of the key voices in the dugout who stepped up and showed his mettle as a leader following the loss to GCMS.
"Nolan Roseman is one of our biggest leaders," Riddle said. "He’s always positive and making sure no one’s slacking off. Whenever someone’s down, he’s always there to help him out, especially me. I’m a sophomore, and he’s an upperclassman. When I make a mistake, he’s never down on me. He always finds a positive out of it and is there to help."
And speaking of positivity, another one of the Eagles’ most confident voices belongs to Duden. A freshman who rarely sees the varsity field, Duden is a team favorite among players and coaches — and he got his chance to shine on the basepaths during Friday’s 14-1 win over Georgetown-Ridge Farm, coming on as a pinch-runner and tallying a run to put the Eagles ahead by 10 in the sixth inning.
"He’s always live," Riddle said. "He plays his role on the bench, and he’s always being loud and saying something positive to us. You always hear him out on the field when he’s in the dugout yelling to us. Making sure we’re always positive out there."
It’s not just Duden who provides positivity and energy. In fact, it seems to be a characteristic shared by the entire team.
There is a such a natural chemistry these Eagles possess that Donovan hasn’t had to try and create any sort of camaraderie among the group. One of the quotes he told the team at the beginning of the year —
"My job is to love you guys. Your job is to love each other." — was unnecessary to tell them, he said.
"They’ve grown up together, and it’s so fun to watch them go to work every day," Donovan said. "When someone’s messing up, yeah, they got on them. But they understand, ‘That’s one of my best friends getting on me.’ So it’s not taken personally. But they’re also holding each other to high standards this year, so that’s great to see."
Another aspect of the chemistry is the solid foundation created at home.
"They’re just good kids. Good people. Raised by good families. They respect the program Coach Donovan’s put together. They function in it," Jones Jr. said. "(Thursday) in practice, they were getting after it and chirping at each other, and (Donovan) said, ‘Boy, it’s a good thing these guys are friends because there’d be some fist fights in other dugouts with some of the stuff they say to each other.’ And some credit needs to be given where the humble guy (Donovan) won’t give it.
"It’s not about any one player or any one coach. It’s the program, and he allows this team’s personality to take place. There are probably sometimes he’s uncomfortable with the shenanigans I’m doing with the kids in a situation. Yet, they’re performing, and it’s working and it’s functioning. That’s what’s fun."
And there is absolutely no doubt this team is having fun. That much is instantly obvious if you stand close to the dugout … or, frankly, if you have eyes and ears.
"It’s so much fun. This team is so fun," Riddle said. "When we’re winning it helps a lot because we’re all super close. We’re just having fun out there, even at practices the day after a long game, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to have fun."
"Almost all the kids on our team are from the Gifford area, and a lot of us played travel ball together," Frerichs said. "I’ve been playing with them since I was 10 or younger. We’re all best friends on and off the field, so it’s been huge to watch each other grow as people and as athletes. The chemistry is definitely there, and it helps keep things live. We can make fun of each other a little bit more kind of like brothers do. Just being around each other so much just builds camaraderie and chemistry and helps us build trust in each other."
Probably the most unique story in this team’s run, however, is the innovative pitching starting pitching strategy cultivated by Jones Jr., the club’s pitching coach.
"Rotation Modification," a term coined by assistant coach Rich Harbicek, is the brainchild of Jones Jr. It is a system he deployed back when he was coaching his son, Luke, between the ages of 10-12 for the Champaign Tribe around 2009-10.
Instead of starting one of the top team’s top arms, for instance No. 1 starter Adam Crites or No. 2 Nolan Roseman, the coaching staff trots out one of the club’s younger, more inexperienced hurlers to begin the game. After that pitcher, for instance Nolan Riddle, gets through one or two innings, then the Eagles bring in Crites, Roseman or Chad Vermillion (or a combination of those three) to pitch the remaining five-six innings.
Essentially, the coaching staff is using Rantoul’s best starters as long-relief bullpen arms, and it’s worked like a charm.
"We just brainstormed as a coaching staff. We were sitting around saying, ‘We’ve had five losses in games we had the lead and been getting beat by six or seven runs in the last inning or two. This team is too good to be getting beat like this. (Jones Jr.) threw the idea out there, and I was thinking, ‘It could work. Let’s ask a few more people.’"
So that’s what they did. Donovan spoke with Andrew Cotner, a Parkland baseball assistant coach, and Cotner fell in love, telling the Eagles coach, "That’s a great idea. I don’t know why more high school coaches do that that don’t have bigger pitching staffs.’"
"He said, ‘The first time you try it, it’s probably not going to work, and you’re going to be second-guessed by everyone. But why not? Why not give it a try?’" Donovan said. "We had to do something because we’ve been in too many close games where we just ended up getting shelled. It’s worked out for the better, not just for our record in terms of wins and losses. Not only is it providing confidence for the team, but it’s helping the less experienced guys on the pitching staff. … We needed some reassurance. So once we got reassurance from another coach at a level higher than this, we wanted to give it a shot. Why not?"
The core positive this new tactic has brought is the more confident mentality it brings. If one of Rantoul’s coaches asks one of their underclassman who has limited varsity experience to close out a game, it has brought too much pressure. Before, for example, the staff would have Crites toss five innings, leave with a 3-1 lead and then ask a sophomore to shut down an opponent the final two frames.
Now, the staff uses an underclassman to give one, two or, if things go really well, three innings before the big dogs come in.
"What I see with these younger guys is they go in and if you tell them they’re going to pitch the whole game, that’s a big chunk of pie," Jones Jr. said. "When you tell them, ‘Your job is to go in and face batter-to-batter-to-batter because you don’t know when I’m going to take you out,’ you have kind of a finite thing of one inning at a time. One series (of pitches) at a time.
"Nolan Riddle, for example, is a young kid with no varsity experience coming into this year. You go in and tell him, ‘You’ve got two innings. One time through the lineup. That’s your goal. If we can get through three, that’s great.’ And then he comes in, and he’s throwing sneaky fast with good curveballs, and the defense is playing well behind him. His confidence builds up. Now, before the pressure really kicks in, you usher him off and bring in somebody who can handle it. … It’s something that’s been very good for Nolan and Adam. They don’t have to shoulder the entire responsibility and be concerned about every pitch. Sometimes we get too fine and try to throw too good of a pitch."
The technique was first used by Jones Jr. with the Tribe due to the packed-in scheduling of summer travel ball. Playing three-five games in a weekend forced the coach to "try to steal a couple innings with a guy to buy (some time) until you get to your starters."
"It had nothing to do with what (opponents) were seeing as a batter," said Jones Jr., who suggested the idea two-three weeks ago. "It had everything to do with our pitching strengths. It’s been a confidence boost for these kids of, ‘Coach is confident in me to get through a couple innings, and I’ve got somebody coming out of the pen with the quality of Nolan Roseman or Adam Crites or Chad Vermillion.’… Starting someone like Roseman or Crites and they throw 30 or 40 pitches in the first two innings, it’s still 0-0. If we can get through a scenario, and we’ve been very successful with this, where we’re able to hand them a series of events where we’re close or ahead, it works really well."
Donovan was frustrated throughout the season’s first half at his club’s lack of aggressiveness and awareness at the plate. Far too many strikeouts and an excessive amount of complacency doomed Rantoul’s offense during a 6-7 start to the year.
Those negatives tendencies have been hard to notice during a three-week period in which the Eagles have outscored their opponents 56-32 and have seen four players reach the .300 batting average plateau.
Roseman (.352/.478/.437, 21 runs scored, 14 walks drawn), Riddle (.328/..391/.448, 10 RBI, 15 runs), Frerichs (.380/.447/.606, 14 RBI, 26 runs) and Luke Jones (.400/.452/.629, 32 RBI, 15 runs, two home runs) are Rantoul’s one-four hitters.
And the Eagles’ next three hitters have been raking as well, with Adam Crites (.270, 14 runs), Hayden Cargo (.271, 18 RBI) and Chad Vermillion (.267) all nearing the .300 mark.
"Our offense has just kicked on," Frerichs said. "We’ve got a lot of hitters on this team and guys that we know can produce. In the beginning of the year, we had a few guys (playing well), but now it’s all the way one through nine. We’ve got guys putting balls in play and squaring it up. … It’s big just being able to come out every day and, no matter what pitching we’re seeing, just being able to drive the ball."
"We’ve really seen what we can be," Riddle said. "And now that we’ve been at that level, we want to stay there, and we’ve consistently been putting in that work."
Riddle has been one of those hard workers that has continually improved as the year has gone — so much so that Donovan moved him up from the nine-hole he had been dominating up to the two-spot.
"(Riddle) has been huge," Frerichs said. "One of the hottest hitters in the past few games. Just squaring the ball up constantly out of the two-hole as our second leadoff hitter."
"It’s different seeing a lot less fastballs," Riddle said of the move from the nine-hole to the two. "I’ve got to do what’s best for my team. Even if I’m not getting a hit every time, if I’m moving a runner over or laying down a bunt, I’ll do what’s best for my team. … My swing was a little bit too long (early in the year), and when we’ve had those extra practices, the coaching staff and the players have been helping me with what I need to do by shortening up my swing, squaring it up and putting it in play."
Riddle’s emergence, combined with the all-area caliber play of Roseman, Frerichs and Jones and the increased productivity out of the five-nine slots, has been an underlying cause of the Eagles’ hot play. The sophomore has solidified the two-hole, which was one of weak spots through the first 13 games or so.
With each bat catching fire and the success of the new pitching strategy, a No. 8 seed in the regional could look quite misleading once Monday hits.
"I think we have a pretty high ceiling," Frerichs said. "I know that when we’re at our best, we can compete at a very high level. The only way we can do it is if we come out and give 100 percent every single day. If we let up and come in with the wrong mindset, we’re just going to roll over and not get it done. Something coach always says is, ‘Respect all. Fear none.’ Even if we’re playing a team with a bad record, we can’t go out thinking we’re easily going to blow them over."
Contact Zack Carpenter at email@example.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.