Review of Rockford baseball’s 2011 championship season

RAM PRIDE SPREADS LIKE WILDFIRE—Rockford's Ram pride made its way to Denver, Colorado on Saturday, June 18 during the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers game at Coors Field. Congratulations, Ram baseball.

The Rams didn’t have anyone get drafted in the MLB draft this year. It’s not that they didn’t have talent—they certainly did. But they didn’t rely on the pitcher who throws 90+ or the hitter who hit 20 homeruns. What they did have was a never-give-up attitude, a mantra of GBED (Get Better Every Day) and inspiration in the form of an 11-year-old boy. Coach’s son, Ian Hearn Jr., had to have two heart surgeries as the Rams prepared to go into the playoffs. It was a source of inspiration as they resolved to win for Ian Junior.

And win they did. The Rams worked their way through the districts, regionals, quarterfinals and semifinals until they got to the title game and won the state championship—a first for Rockford baseball. Thankfully, the surgeries for Ian Junior were successful as well.

There wasn’t any one player who carried the team on their back. It was a total team effort from day one. The Rams had adversity and distractions along the way, but worked through them like a true family. The guidance and instruction from the coaching staff allowed the team to stay focused and on track to accomplish what had not previously been done at Rockford.

In a school the size of Rockford, playing in the tough OK Red conference, it’s hard to believe there would be freshmen mature and talented enough to be part of a state championship-caliber varsity team. Kory Young is one such player. Young could have stayed at the junior varsity level and received more playing time, but chose to stay at varsity and gain valuable experience that will certainly serve him well in the years to come. He batted .333 and was a great utility player when the Rams needed him. He will certainly be one of the bright spots in the future for Ram baseball.

Two other freshmen were pulled up for the playoffs: Reid Kelley and Brent Showers. Kelley is a fireballing right-handed pitcher and will likely be a big part of future Ram success. He gained some valuable experience and will no doubt be looked to as a team leader in the years to come. Showers’ situation was a bit different. Tony DiLeo, the junior everyday catcher, was unable to play in districts due to an injury. Showers filled in quite nicely, as he was solid behind the plate and hit .440 for the entire seven games of the playoffs. He is very versatile and will also be a future leader for the Rams.

The juniors provided most of the offense for the team, starting with leadoff hitter Drew Farmer. Farmer is one of the fastest baseball players in the state in any division. He also led the team with six homeruns, four triples, 11 doubles, 57 hits and a batting average of .504. He was All Conference and second team All State. Farmer has verbally committed to accept a scholarship to play at Western Michigan University next fall.

Brandon Nostrant was a solid defensive player at third base. He’s one of the smartest baseball players in the conference and just plays in a hard-nosed, gritty manner. Nostrant often talked to the pitchers when they were struggling—which was rare for the Rams. He would frequently say just the right thing to get them refocused. He typically batted second in the lineup and hit .360—fourth on the team.

Shain Showers defines Rockford baseball. He works hard, goes 100 percent all the time, and will sacrifice his body to keep the ball on the infield as the starting shortstop. He batted third in the lineup and came through in a big way in the state championship game by hitting a long homerun to put the Rams ahead at one point. Showers batted .358 and tied DiLeo for the team-leading 36 RBIs. He pitched for the Rams a bit as well, earning one win, a save, and had an ERA of 1.47.

Tony DiLeo was the everyday catcher, and he did catch nearly every game. He was a preseason Louisville Slugger All American and was listed as a top player in the state along with teammate Austin Stephens by ESPN Rise magazine. DiLeo was second on the team in doubles with 10 and batted .416. He also tied with Showers in team-leading RBIs with 36. He will certainly be counted on for more run production in 2012. DiLeo received second team All State honors as well.

Matt Boonstra shared time at first base with Bryan Baldwin and Young. Boonstra batted .278 and had two homeruns and four doubles on the season. One of the homeruns was instrumental in sealing the victory over Portage Central in the state semifinal game. He got a fastball in his “wheelhouse” and hit it about 410 feet over the left center field fence. This feat inspired Matt Kropiewnicki (father to Joe) to show up the next day for the championship game sporting a “Matt Boonstra wig” under his ball cap—long flowing blonde hair, just like “Boony”.

Ian Stankus is another speedster on the bases. Only this speedster has a great arm as well and can hit. He was the everyday second baseman as well as a pitcher. He and S. Showers formed a great double play combo in the middle. Stankus was on a torrid hitting pace early in the year, but cooled off a bit toward the end. He still ended up second in triples and had 21 RBIs on the year. On the mound, he was 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA and at times showed a devastating curveball that had right-handed batter’s knees buckling.

Nick Street was a spot starter for the Ram pitching staff. Street improved significantly over the season. He’s an imposing figure on the mound at 6’5” and has good command. Street fired a no-hitter about midway through the season and ended up 2-0 with a 2.10 ERA and only gave up two hits in 13-1/3 innings. He will be very tough as he continues to improve.

Max Crimp was a platoon player in the outfield. He had good speed and used it to his advantage both on the bases and patrolling the outfield. Crimp ended the season with a .314 batting average and hit two doubles. He did earn the moniker of “funniest guy on the team,” at least according to some of his peers.

Jesse Edick also played a platoon role in the outfield. He can run well also and has a good arm from the outfield. Edick batted .292 for the season and had three RBIs, two of which were instrumental in an early season game in Indiana.

Rockford had seven seniors on the team. The senior class had most of the pitching. The anchor of the pitching staff this year was left-hander, Joe Kropiewnicki. “Krop” had one of the best years a pitcher could have put together. With every outing he improved. Kropiewnicki twirled a no-hitter of his own about halfway through the season. He was 10-0 with an ERA of 1.39, and led the staff in innings pitched (70-1/3) and strikeouts (68). He was named first team All State. Kropiewnicki’s name will be in the Rockford record book for some time. He heads to University of Michigan to study and walk on to the baseball team.

Bryan Baldwin has been on the varsity for over three years and has been either the number one or number two pitcher each year. He ended up 6-0 on the mound this season with an ERA of 1.96. Baldwin will join former Ram standout Street at Spring Arbor University in the fall. He has a lot of “projectablity” with his lean 6’3” frame and should have success at the next level.

Austin Stephens was another tall, lean left-hander. Stephens came out of nowhere the last couple of years, making big gains in velocity and pitch-ability. He could be the poster child for kids that get cut or just barely make the team but work hard to earn more time. After making his college choice, Stephens really settled in, getting the wins in four of the seven playoff games. He accomplished a rare feat by getting credit for wins in both the state semifinal game as well as the championship game. He was at the bottom of the dog pile on the mound after striking out the last batter in the title game. Stephens was second on the staff in innings pitched, wins and strikeouts. He accepted a scholarship to play at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in the fall along with teammate Christian Leinesch.

Caleb Post is another quality right-handed pitcher, who developed a slider in the off season and at times it was devastating for opposing batters. Post saw limited time on the mound, but was effective when he toed the rubber. He ended up 3-1 with a 1.33 ERA and struck out 25 batters in 21 innings. Post will join brother and former Ram pitcher, Ethan, at Rose-Hulman College on the baseball field. He brought the team GPA up as well, as he sported nearly 4.7 and graduated third in the senior class.

Mike Bilski was a utility outfielder, who often ran for catcher DiLeo. Bilski was the consummate professional. He went out and worked hard—“no excuses, just get the job done” kind of attitude. Bilski’s offensive numbers were down a bit this year compared to past years, but he was one of the major catalysts for the championship run. He came in to a tough situation in the district game against Northview. Nostrant had gone down with a leg injury in the middle of an at-bat with the count 2-2. Bilski came in cold off the bench and worked a walk, which was no small feat in that situation. The Ram offense came alive immediately thereafter and carried that momentum through to a championship. Bilski may not have hit .400, but was absolutely instrumental in the team winning a state title.

Andrew Rademacher either has the best eyesight of anyone on the field or can just predict where the ball is going to be hit. Since he was a Little Leaguer, he has gotten better jumps on balls coming off the bat than just about anyone. He made a diving catch against Hudsonville in the regionals to preserve a lead and made a running, over-the-shoulder catch in the state title game. Offensively, Rademacher made some adjustments in his swing in the off season and it paid off. “A-Rad” hit .304 for the year with three doubles and 17 RBIs.

Christian Leinesch is another one of those four-year varsity guys. “Crick” has been a staple in the outfield for a long time. He can run and reads the ball very well. Add a strong arm to that mix and you’ve got yourself a quality centerfielder. Leinesch improved on his offensive numbers from last year as well. He ended the season batting .393 with 28 RBIs—both were third on the team. He also had eight doubles. Leinesch will be attending GRCC, along with Stephens, on a baseball scholarship in the fall.

Any successful team needs quality leaders, and the Ram baseball team certainly had that aspect covered. Assistant Coach Steve Fusee was great with the players. He’s fairly young himself and, having played baseball at Rockford, he had the local experience the players appreciated. “Coach Fuzz” was a standout athlete at Rockford and went on to play football at Ferris State University.

Assistant Coach Scott Doyle brought a lot of experience to the team as well. Doyle played baseball at Central Michigan University (CMU) and was a fount of knowledge, especially for the Ram middle infielders, as Doyle was a shortstop while a Chippewa.

Head Coach Ian Hearn took the position four years ago. In four short years he has led Ram teams to two OK Red conference championships and now all the way to a state title. His experience comes from playing college baseball as well at CMU. He and Doyle played together there. Having to manage the team while going through the stress of his oldest son having surgery had to be difficult, but Coach Hearn, like Ian Junior, came through with flying colors.

The entire coaching staff did a phenomenal job of helping the players maintain focus and keep moving forward during a year when any one of several issues could have derailed their chances for success.

There usually are people in the background and working in the trenches that help support an organization or program on its way to success. Rockford baseball is no different. They have had many volunteers who helped to make things happen. There were no greater contributors than Chris and Sondra Leinesch. Dubbed the “team parents,” they worked tirelessly organizing concessions, banquets, ordering signs and celebration materials and even setting up a police escort for the victorious Rams.

Other parent volunteers chipped in as well. Matt and Nancy Kropiewnicki along with Kathy Farmer produce the highest quality memory book in the league and probably the state. They devote tons of time taking photos, taking player surveys and editing. Hollie Rademacher supplied photos for the memory book as well. There were many parent volunteers working concessions, announcing games and supplying meals and/or snacks for road trips.

Lastly, the community has been very supportive. The turnout at the semifinal and final games was tremendous. There was a sea of black and orange that gave the players added motivation when it was needed most. As the team made its way back into Rockford after winning the title, there were Rockford residents standing alongside the road, clapping and waving in an effort to congratulate the team for their accomplishment.

The 2011 Rockford baseball team has now set the bar high in winning the state title and setting a record for wins: 36. There is a lot of talent waiting in the wings and, if they can play with the same cohesiveness and chemistry this year’s team showed, good things will certainly happen.

 

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