As revered as the Nokomis boys basketball program is, it’s difficult to argue that the Redskins baseball program hasn’t been just as good the last few years.
The Skins have four regional championships in the last six years and haven’t lost a postseason game by more than two runs since 2013. Going back a little further, the Redskins have ten regional championships since 2002, with more 20-win seasons (six) than losing campaigns (one).
What they’ve been missing in that stretch is a trip to the IHSA state finals, a tournament that they have played in just once, in 1977 under Bob Davis. But with seven seniors and 12 lettermen returning from last year’s 20-5 team that lost 5-4 to North Clay in the sectional semifinal, 2020 was going to be the year that the Redskins made their return to state.
At least, that’s how it was supposed to work until COVID-19 turned the world upside down and forced the cancellation of all games through April 30, at least. The IHSA still has a sliver of hope to have some sort of a season, even if it extends into the fall, but another delay would put those hopes in significant jeopardy.
“Nobody knows anything and you have to err on the safe side,” said Coach Brian Pesko. “Their (the IHSA) hands are tied. You don’t want to be the organization that does something and it comes back to haunt you. I don’t expect to play, but I hope we do obviously.”
The anticipation for 2020 was evident even in 2019, when the Redskins used what would have been their senior night to honor their late friend and former teammate, Camren Neisler, since there were no seniors on the roster.
Of the seven returning seniors, six batted over .300 for the year, with Adam Lyons nearly making that mark with a .280 average. Ryan Janssen (.425), Drew Masset (.411), Marc Grigoroff (.345), Nick Mascher (.369), Carter Sabol (.329) and Alex Tosetti (.316) made up a core strong enough to make any coach drool, with junior Evan Herpstreith (.292) added in for good measure.
In the offseason, the rich got richer, as senior Karrick Pembroke transferred in from Taylorville and Jude Bertolino moved in from Hillsboro. Pembroke batted fifth for the Tornadoes in 2019, while Bertolino would have been one of Hillsboro’s top pitchers in 2020.
“When you have five or six guys who could play in college at a 1A school? You just don’t see that very often,” said Pesko. “You don’t want to compare teams, and I’ve had a lot of good teams and a lot of good players, but this was going to be a pretty special year.”
Sabol and Janssen signed earlier to play at Lake Land College, while Pembroke is expected to play at the next level as well. Pesko added that players like Tosetti (who signed to play football for Augustana), Mascher (who injured his knee early in basketball) and Masset could also contribute to a college line-up, as well as Herpstreith after the 2021 campaign.
As good as their stats looked, Pesko said that the group had that little extra something special that pushes teams to the next level, comparing them to the 2009 Lincolnwood baseball team that won the state title in Class 1A.
“When we got done with basketball on Friday, I always give them the next day off. This year, since we had everyone coming back, I thought I could give them two days,” Pesko said. “All 14 of those kids went to Litchfield to hit and play catch on Monday and Tuesday. When you’ve got talent, then you have the kids like that, it’s a coach’s dream honestly. You hope for good kids and if they’re talented, that’s icing on the cake.”
That extra commitment is one of the things that makes the possible cancellation of this season the hardest pill to swallow for Pesko.
“These kids have gone 12 summers not going on vacations with their families so they can play baseball,” he said. “Putting all that money and time in it for this year and then to have that taken away? That’s probably the hardest thing. You go through basketball with them, then baseball, and they’re not my own kids, but they’re pretty darn close.”
Even though some of the Redskins will continue to play at the college level, the loss of their final high school season still stings. Playing in college is special, but it’s a different kind of special than playing with the guys you started out with in tee-ball more than a decade ago. Hopefully, the Redskins will get to experience that kind of special one last time.