by RANDY GREGORY
The 2011 version of Rockford baseball entered uncharted waters by capping off the season with a Division I state championship last June in Battle Creek. This year’s squad returns the bulk of that team along with some overwhelming expectations from both Michigan and national pundits.
Louisville Slugger has slotted Rockford as the No. 27 team nationally in their preseason rankings. The ESPN Fab 50 includes the Rams as the 48th-ranked club in the nation as well, while also placing Rockford sixth in the Midwest (which strangely includes a pair of teams from Oklahoma). Not to be outdone, the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association anointed the Rams as the number one team in Michigan in their preseason rankings as well.
“We do return a lot of positional players this year, but we lost all three of our top pitchers,” said Rockford Coach Ian Hearn. “We have some very good arms, but they are untested to a certain extent and it will take us a while to gel as a team. We aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this year and it will be interesting to see how we react to having a target on our backs.”
No fewer than five players have already signed to continue their baseball careers on the collegiate level next year. They are seniors Drew Farmer (Western Michigan), Tony Dileo (Eastern Michigan), Shain Showers (Evansville University), Ian Stankus (Grand Rapids Community College), and Nick Street (Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio). Coupled with some talented juniors and three sophomores who were part of a junior varsity squad which very nearly ran the table last year (27-1), and the groundwork is in place for another successful season.
Hearn will have multiple options both in the infield and in the outfield for the Rams. As many as five or six Rams are vying for time in the outfield, led by Louisville Slugger Preseason All American Farmer. Brandon Nostrant, Kory Young, Reid Kelley, Stankus and Max Crimp will also figure into the mix. Alex Hertel has been swinging a solid bat early and is nosing his way into the conversation as well.
The infield situation is, if anything, even deeper in talent. Showers, Stankus, Nostrant and Young all saw considerable time last year and can all play multiple positions, mainly third, shortstop and second base. Brent Showers, Street, and Steven Powell are three players pushing for the starting job at first base for Rockford. The main difference from the 2011 team to this one is the fact that the primary pitching duties will fall onto positional players as opposed to last year’s pitching corps that mostly only pitched. That will enable Hearn to use a multitude of players in many different positions, thus taking advantage of their tremendous versatility.
“We are lucky to have so many interchangeable parts this year,” said Hearn. “We lost some outstanding pitchers, but we have a focused, hardworking bunch that will hopefully step to the front in whatever position they find themselves in on that day.”
Catching is another area of strength for Rockford. Dileo was also honored as an honorable mention Preseason All American by Louisville Slugger and he is backed up by multi-position standout Brent Showers. Most teams would be envious of having just one of those two, but the Rams have the pair, and it makes for an opportunity to play both at different positions and give them a rest from the rigors of catching on a daily basis.
Brent Showers, Stankus, Street and Shain Showers figure to be the featured hurlers at this time for Rockford. Crimp and Kelley also bring intriguing promise with Crimp’s lefty slants and Kelley’s mid 80s fastball.
“Nobody will outwork this team,” said Hearn. “These kids love baseball and play it with a passion. Hudsonville is a tremendously talented team and Grandville should be pretty solid as well. West Ottawa also had a young team last year, so just winning the OK Red will be a challenge for anyone. We are looking forward to the challenges and we want to build on last year’s success.”
Rockford kicks off the season with a trip to Indiana on Friday and Saturday, April 6-7, to face a quartet of Indiana powers. They will then kick off the OK Red season with games against Muskegon on Wednesday, April 11 and Friday, April 13.