GIFFORD — If someone would have told Dan Plecki prior to the season his team would be 15-5 at regular season’s end, he would have laughed.
That’s something the Gifford-Flatville baseball team’s player/manager admits, yet heading into Sunday’s Eastern Illinois League Jamboree, that’s where the Giflats’ record stood at.
That record was good enough for the club’s first regular season championship since 2011, which also includes the No. 1 overall seed in the E.I. League Tournament that begins Sunday.
After finishing 11-10 last season during an up-and-down summer, the Giflats were given a No. 2 seed in the playoffs and were bounced by the Champaign Dream. One of the biggest differences this year during a run that includes nine wins by two runs or fewer, Plecki says, is the club’s resiliency.
"I know our guys have a lot of talent and a lot of heart," Plecki said. "Even the games we’re down early, I’m not too concerned about it because I know our guys are going to fight through it and finish. We’ve had several extra-inning games we’ve won this year and some close ones. It’s been really fun this year watching these guys. It’s always fun to watch guys hustling and running around, diving for the ball. That’s one of the best things I like about coaching this team. They’re just a lot of fun and a lot of fun to be around.
"Part of the thing about playing summer baseball is you’ve got to remind guys that this is a game, and it’s supposed to be fun. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and compete as hard as you can and try to win."
What Plecki and others set out to do when building the team was to find players they knew were going to compete at all times and go all out. Plecki found that solid group of players who will run out infield ground balls to put pressure on infielders and possibly get an infield hit or induce an error. And these players have plenty of speed and will steal and aren’t afraid to try to take an extra base.
"You don’t always have to have the most talent to win these games, and I think our guys do a good job playing hard all the time and playing the right way," Plecki said. "I think the biggest difference for us is we obviously added some new, younger talent this year with a good group of veteran guys who have helped coach them along in this league."
The dynamic of the league has also changed a lot in recent years. The talent pool has increased, with the league now consisting of almost all college players or former college players.
Every single team, Plecki says, has an abundance of good players, making it a fool’s errand to believe you will be able to stroll into any game and expect to win easily. And many of the younger guys first starting out in the league don’t expect it to be as hard-nosed and fast-paced as it is.
"Some guys, when they first come into this league, are like a deer in the headlights with how things are done and how they operate," Plecki said. "Some of these younger guys that come in, I don’t think they expect the pitching to be as good, and the pitchers don’t expect the hitters to be as talented as they are.
"I think the competition level is better than what they’re used to, so a lot of good, young players come in thinking they’re going to be the best player in the league, and that’s not always the case."
Improved chemistry has also been a plus this summer, as Plecki says everybody in the dugout gets along very well — mainly because they’re all of the same mindset. The culture is to go out, play hard, get the job done and never quit fighting until the end. Plecki’s crew has bought into that, and that helps keep the team going.
Helping put this team together were players such as Austin Tabeling, last season’s Pitcher of the Year award winner who was instrumental in getting key players to play for the Giflats such as Kaleb Denault (a solid outfielder who has served as the team’s two-hole hitter) and Howard Fisher (an outfielder/utility man who can play shortstop as well). Marty Mennenga and Mike Plecki also recruited a bit, opening up the Illinois Wesleyan pipeline that brought forth brothers Daniel and Matt Banaitis — the former is one whom Plecki said pitches 2-3 innings in a relief role and be counted on every weekend, and the latter is one who has surprised Plecki with his strong catching ability.
"I’ve known quite a few of these guys (for a while)," Plecki said. "I’ve coached them in the summer and in high school, and the younger guys — the guys who are college-age or finishing up college — those are the guys I can kind of reach out to and talk about who might be a guy we may be interested in picking up as a pitcher. And if we need a couple outfielders, who can we pick up for that? The players definitely are an aid in recruiting, but we’ve also seen a lot of these players play, so we know what they’re capable of.
"A couple of our outfielders we didn’t know much about at the start of the year, they’ve done a really nice job. Unfortunately, our pitching staff has taken a little bit of a hit with injuries, but we’re hoping those guys will be strong for the tournament."
Despite the so-so finish and No. 2 seed in the tournament last year, the Giflats still went in expecting to win their first tournament championship since 2011, which was also the last time they were seeded first in the playoffs.
Despite the early exit, however, expectations remain high — and the regular season title doesn’t mean much when the games start. Anyone can win, and anyone can lose.
"We’ve always been looking to win the tournament. The way it’s set up is it’s really anybody’s ball game. You don’t have to play too many games to win. You’ve got to play two the first weekend and then the three-game series the next weekend to win it all. So you’re looking at potentially four games to win on two different weekends," Plecki said. "It’s definitely anybody’s ball game because if you think about how good some of the teams in this league are, regardless of what their record states, you could face one pitcher from another team who can shut you down the first day, and you’re out.
"Being single elimination in the first weekend, it’s really up in the air and anybody’s ball game. But we’re just going to stick to our strategy of just going out there and playing hard and having fun, and we hope to get some good pitching and timely hitting."
Contact Zack Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.