In mythology, a phoenix is reduced to ash before it rises and burns brightly again.
But 's summer varsity baseball squad is putting its own spin on that myth, skipping the "reduced to ash" part and continuing this season to burn brightly on the diamond.
The Phoenix is 10-2 currently, and the team looks as if it's on its way to winning a second, consecutive summer league title. Last season the team was led mainly by a unit of juniors who felt they had something to prove, said varsity baseball coach Joe Skarbek. This year, the players feel like they are going to take the crown because "it's what they're supposed to do," he added.
Patch caught up with Skarbek to get his take on the season and how far he thinks the team can go in the playoffs this year.
Patch: What has been your impression of the team’s summer season thus far?
Joe Skarbek: The summer has gone pretty well. We have one addition, which I'm sure a lot of people know about: Kevin Smith who transferred from St. Laurence [in Burbank]. He’s a nice player. We returned eight other defensive players from last year’s team. So we kind of know what they’re all about. And the juniors are learning what varsity baseball is all about. I’m seeing us improve each week, which is the goal.
What is one point of emphasis that you’ve been trying to get across to your players?
I think doing the small things with the juniors is important. Backing up bases, making sure you’re in the right spot, and always thinking one play ahead. For instance, there's a bunt with a guy on first base. The left fielder should back the first baseman up. The players ask, "Coach, why would I do that?" When the [player on the opposing team] tries going to third, you’ll be there for the backup. "Oh that makes sense," players respond back.
And then for the seniors—learning what makes runs happen. Rather than just home runs. They need to move guys along whether it be by advancing on a past ball or something like that. That really helps the team out. Pushing that type of execution is going to help us out for next spring.
Have you noticed progress with the juniors and seniors?
Absolutely. We have had great progress this summer. The first week, I was close to pulling out my hair, because they were all kind of playing "me baseball." Trying to hit the home run or get a double when what I need for them to do is simply not strikeout. We’re not seeing that anymore. Kids are learning that it actually hurt us in the past, and they’re jumping on board.
What does your team need to improve on if they want to win the championship once again?
I think we need to stay lucky. And, we were lucky last year. The first week is single elimination, and one bad bounce can cost you. We got the pitching for it though. If everyone’s on top of their game, I got six or seven top-notch pitchers in the area, so that’ll help us. And then just timely hitting.
What is the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year's championship one?
The team last year had a chip on their shoulder like, "We got to show everyone since so many of them were juniors." This year, it’s more like, "We’re supposed to do this." And that might put a little bit of pressure on them, but they’re not showing that right now. We’ll see when the tournament starts, but we’ve got some players that have been there and know what it takes.
What players have carried the team the most thus far this summer?
Well there was a big question about [Kyle] Ostrowski since he’s only going to be a sophomore if he was ready for varsity. He definitely is. He has been great. Brett King has varsity experience, another junior. But then the guys that we have—Mike Miller and Jake McCabe—have done great. Josh Reed, he’s been playing a lot with his summer team, but he looks good. But even these junior guys that we think are going to help us down the line, they look great. We really have a nice team for the playoffs.
How is the summer league different from the spring?
I’m a big believer that practice makes perfect. We don’t have that opportunity in the summer. A lot of times what happens is if something breaks down during the game, you talk about it at the end of the game. Then if that was the regular season, you would practice it the next day. Well, the next time you’re going to be together is likely another game. So, then you hope that they can make that adjustment in their mind and physically so that same mistake doesn’t happen again.
Are there any positives to being able to play during the summer?
It’s understood by the coaches that you play more. There is [more leniency on substituting players]. And you can get more guys to play. So that kind of keeps everything a little more laid back. Guys can just sort of do what they do rather than do what they want to do. That kind of mentality is great. You hopefully can build on that confidence for next spring. And if someone does well, say, "Hey, I saw you make that play at camp last summer."
Is there any game left on the schedule that you’re looking forward to more than others?
Next week is interesting because we’ll have four straight games against top-notch people, including Minooka, , St. Laurence. It will be really good to see plenty of great competition that last week before the playoff tournament that starts the following week.
Do you think the team has what it takes to win it all once again?
I do. It’s very hard for you to pin me down on that, but with the guys that are returning, and their health, along with some new players: we can. We got some nice juniors that are filling out well.
The Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Summer Baseball regional tournament runs from Monday, July 16, to Thursday, July, 19. The state tournament is from Monday, July 23, to Friday, July 27. The location for all of these games will be determined on a game-by-game-basis.