The baseball program at Springfield has not often struck fear into the hearts of its rivals in the Northern Lakes League over the years.
In fact, the Blue Devils have never won an NLL baseball championship. By season s end, however, Springfield hopes to change that thinking.
The league was established in 1957 and Springfield joined in the fall of 1962.
Although they realize they are a long shot to end their title drought, this year s Blue Devils have their sights set on doing just that. And, with their somewhat odd varsity roster mix of 11 seniors and one sophomore, the current Devils are well aware that this is their last chance to make a first (place) impression.
After Monday s 9-3 NLL victory over visiting Northview, Springfield was 10-2 overall and 3-0 in the NLL. Not a bad start, but bigger tests began last night with an NLL battle at Bowling Green and another tomorrow at home versus Anthony Wayne, the two favored contenders for this year s league title.
I never fathomed having a start like this, second-year coach Jamie Schwieterman said. Not many people picked us to do all that well this year. But, hopefully, we re going to go out and surprise some teams.
I think we legitimately have an opportunity, and we could make some noise in the league. We know there s some big obstacles, but I think we can compete with anybody.
Leading the way are the senior trio of Steve Decker, Josh Champion and Josh Adams, who compose the key portion of the pitching rotation when they are not manning starting spots in the field.
Decker, a third-year starter at catcher, has been utilized as the Devils closer. He is hitting .359 with one home run and 12 RBI, and has allowed just two hits and one earned run (0.75 ERA) while striking out eight batters in 91/3 innings on the mound.
We re hitting the ball really well and our pitching has stepped up, Decker said. Our coaches have prepared us really well for this season, and we re looking forward to getting that first NLL title.
Our mental approach has gotten better this year. We all believe that we can do it. We ve got a good record so far, and that s given us a lot of confidence. Winning the NLL championship is our main goal.
Decker plans to join older brother and former Springfield standout, Matt Decker, on the Heidelberg College baseball team next year.
Decker would be a dream for any coach, Schwieterman said. He s an All-American kid. He ll do anything you ask and he does it harder than anybody. He doesn t stop until he does it well enough to meet his own expectations. He s been a phenomenal three-year varsity starter behind the plate and an asset to this team.
Champion, who also plays left field, has carried a big load both at the plate and on the mound. He leads the team in hitting at .457 (16 for 35) with four doubles, two triples, two homers, 13 runs scored and 18 RBI, and is also the ace on the hill.
We ve been playing together so long that we just want to win for each other, Champion said. We play hard for each other, and for ourselves. But it s a calm atmosphere around here this year. We joke around a lot and we try not to make it too serious. We re out here to have fun, to play hard and to win.
With the win against Northview on Monday, Champion is 3-0 with 21 strikeouts and an 0.91 ERA over 23 innings pitched. He blanked the Wildcats after allowing three first-inning runs, and also hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning.
Champion is very fiery, Schwieterman said. He has a short fuse, but it s because of his competitiveness. He wants to go out on top and he wants to win at any cost.
Sometimes that gets to him a little bit and he loses his edge. But he probably worked harder than anybody in the offseason to be able to hit the ball to the opposite field and to throw the ball. He s our No. 1 pitcher.
Adams, also a standout in center field, is also 3-0 pitching, recording 15 strikeouts over 162/3 innings before last night s scheduled start against BG.
The biggest turnaround this year is our team leadership, Adams said. We ve got a lot of veteran players and we re going in the right direction. We ve got a lot of commitment out here.
A lot of us played against each other in fifth and sixth grade, but by eighth grade we put together pretty much the team we have now.
We know each other and it s starting to pay off.
Adams is batting at a .258 clip.
Josh Adams isn t going to overpower you on the mound, Schwieterman said. He s going to make you put the ball in play to beat him. He hits corners and he does a great job controling a game. In center field, he won t quit. He ll run through a fence for you if he has to.
Rounding out the senior portion of the regular lineup are first baseman Tyler Ammons (.389 batting average), shortstop Brad Konrad (.326 average, 9 stolen bases), second baseman Matt Kelsey and third baseman Joel Gawronski. Seniors Brian Riley, Ryan Stults, Brad Baker and Cody Odorzynski split time in the lineup, mostly in the outfield.
The lone underclassman regular is sophomore right fielder/catcher Garrett Rudolph, who is hitting .421 (16 for 38) with a team-high 19 runs scored.
This all started last year when they were juniors, Schwieterman said. Our first goal was to win the league. We strive every year to get there because we want a banner up in our gym, and something on our fence, that says, `Hey, we finally did it.
As seniors now, they know this is it. This has to be the year. They have to put everything all their time and effort into playing and battling game by game in one of the toughest leagues in the area. So far they ve done that.
Schwieterman had previously served seven years as an assistant to former Blue Devil head coach Ken Groch, who resigned his spot two years ago but stayed on to be Schwieterman s assistant. The two coaches, who saw the potential in the current senior group as far back as their eighth-grade year, are enjoying their jobs more than ever for one primary reason the love of the game displayed daily by the Devil players.
We re very charged up, Schwieterman said. With 11 seniors back on the team with a sophomore, this is what these kids have been aiming for their entire careers here. I knew when I saw them as a group as freshmen, that when they started playing together they were going to be pretty special.
I had dreamed about this for a long time, being able to have a fun group of kids who just love to be out here. It s not like it s work to be out here. They want to be out here, and they have a good time doing it.
Schwieterman has no illusions about the NLL title chase, but he has evidence that this Devil group won t quit. An example of Springfield s new mental approach came last Saturday in a doubleheader split with Bowsher.
After dropping the first game to the Rebels, Springfield trailed 5-1 in the fifth inning of the second game. The Devils rallied for four runs in that inning, tying things on Champion s three-run homer.
After Decker surrendered two runs in relief in the top of the eighth, Springfield plated two runs to tie the game 7-7, then won it on Decker s walk-off grand slam.
Hopefully that [Bowsher win] will be a turning point for us this year, Schwieterman said. The Devils other loss through 12 games came against St. Francis de Sales.
Contact Steve Junga at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461.