For me personally, this was one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had covering Hillsboro High baseball.
A look at the statistics provides some of the reasons; the team was above .500 despite a 3-7 start, so one could see improvement as the season progressed. Only two defeats were by ten runs or more (North Mac, 18-7, and Vandalia 12-2). Both were in the early part of the season, so the pitching and defense improved. The 7 runs Hillsboro scored against North Mac were 7 more than Quincy Notre Dame scored in a sectional semi-final, won 5-0 by the Panthers. Admittedly it was against a different pitcher, but I tend to take happiness where I find it.
We won four games by ten or more runs, but that’s not much more fun than losing big. I liked the close wins (3-2 over Staunton to start an eight game winning streak, 7-6 over Greenville, and 9-8 over Gillespie in the Regional semi-final) which were feel-good experiences. For the season Hillsboro scored 154 runs while surrendering 153; that’s the definition of close.
Starting the games in late April helped; the once-standard mid-March start promoted frost bite more than base hits. Too, the season, at least for the Toppers, ended in early June, just as the hot days were beginning. It was comfortable in the dugouts until the sun reached the bench late in the second Gillespie game. Perhaps the IHSA will recognize the value of an early April to mid-June season when future schedules are considered.
The baseball skill level this season was appreciated. Drake Vogel’s batting average varied from .750 (3 for 4 at Taylorville) to .466 at season’s end; it was at .517 as late as May 25. Dillon Smail, who had some spectacular defensive plays at second, was effective as the lead-off batter although he started slowly offensively, with 6 hits in his first 33 at bats (.182) after eight games. He finished with an average of .329 and lead the team in doubles (12) and stolen bases (also 12). The others at .300 or above were Deklan Riggs (.373), Blaze Helton (.334 with 19 RBIs), and Jace Tuetken (.300). Four others hit .250 or above: Hayden Grosenheider (.280) and Drew Willman, Gavin Matoush, and Preston Lyerla (all at .250). Lyerla didn’t bat often, but scored 9 of his 10 runs as a courtesy runner. Ian Malloy, a fearsome threat in the batter’s box as the designated hitter, only appeared in 11 games because of quarantine (twice) for COVID-19 contact -- though he didn’t have the affliction. As a team, the Toppers hit .306 - if only the Cardinals would do as well.
Pitching-wise, senior Hayden Grosenheider was the ace, though that’s not necessarily a blessing in high school ball because it means you’ll probably face the opponent’s ace in important games. Grosenheider is a relatively tall athletic person who took his strong arm to centerfield when he wasn’t pitching, and he was a good outfielder too. I suspect his 5.99 ERA would have been less had he not pitched against the best and had he not missed a year of experience in 2020. Classified as a senior, he had little varsity experience as a freshman or sophomore, and, like everyone else, no experience last season.
The most memorable pitching performance, of course, was Deklan Riggs’ no-hitter in the fourth game of the season. That’s hard to top and was one of the two complete games he threw (the other was a five inning affair). He and Grosenheider tied for most mound wins on the squad with three apiece. Riggs had the most strikeouts (46) while Grosenheider was second (32). Devin Speiser had the team’s lowest ERA (1.82), while Grosenheider threw the most pitches. In all, ten pitchers toiled in the 22 games.
Other reasons existed for my personal enjoyment of the season. For one, baseball puts me closer to the players than either football (the press box is above the field) and basketball (the scorer’s bench limits interaction). If the kids had been grumpy or whiners (or if the parents become confrontational with a coach or the other teams’ fans), the enjoyment factor for me becomes smaller.
Little of that happened this season. Even the players who saw little playing time stayed “up, involved in the game-” the vast majority of the time, and I really appreciated that. People, including players whom I barely knew before the first game, were respectful and friendly. Even Volunteer Coach Mike Rappe (who once tried to lock me in the old Orange Room locker room when he was a freshman and I was Bill Dagon’s assistant coach - Rappe claimed it was his friend Jerry’s idea) didn’t mutter, “I should have been a farmer,” as often as I’ve heard other years when good fundamental play disappeared.
I almost chose not to follow the team this year; that would have been my loss.