MINOOKA — Many people around the area were surprised to see how far the Minooka Indians baseball team made it in the Class 4A state tournament last year.
Sure, the Indians expected to win their regional, but everything after that would have been just icing on the cake.
Well, there was plenty of icing to go around, as the Indians rode the miraculous play of their seniors all the way to a fourth-place showing. It tied for the best place under head coach Jeff Petrovic, who took his 2005 team to fourth place as well.
"I think to get to the state tournament, no matter who you are, you have to catch breaks," Petrovic said. "We were down to our last out in the sectional semifinals, and their third baseman made two errors. That was the break that team caught last year to get down to state."
That sectional semifinal win did prove to be huge for the Indians, as they carried that momentum into the highlight of the season in the sectional finals against O'Fallon, when graduate Kevin Ruff threw a perfect game to get Minooka one game closer to the state series.
Ruff isn't on the team this year, along with a lot of other key components of last year's squad. In total, seven of the nine bats in the Indians lineup are gone, and Minooka's two top starters, Ruff and Josh Jimenez, are also gone, leaving a lot of room for younger guys coming up this season.
"We know what we have here. When you get to this level, every coach has a good understanding of what he has on his team," Petrovic said. "Will there be surprises? Absolutely, but for the most part we like our guys."
There is some experience coming back, as seniors Joe Carnagio and Max Brozovich come back to anchor the Indians offense. Both players had big 2012 campaigns, and look to come out in their senior years stronger than ever.
"You learn a lot from making a run like we did. You learn how to keep your composure and know what you're playing for once the postseason comes along," Carnagio said. "I have to fix some things, like hitting better the other way and cutting down my strikeouts, and if I do that I can even have a better year than I did last year."
"This year we really have to work hard to get down to state again," Brozovich added. "It'll be difficult to replace the guys we lost, but we have a lot of good talent coming up, so I think we'll be fine."
Pitching will be big once again for Minooka this year, as junior Mitch Vogrin and senior Josh Mitchell look to lead the charge for the Indians. Both were used a lot during the regular season last year, with Vogrin not allowing an earned run all year. Both guys seem poised to take over the void left by Jimenez and Ruff.
"We have a lot of good pitchers on this staff," Vogrin said. "Not only do we have a solid set of seniors, but our juniors are very deep as well. We have good fifth an sixth guys, which is always strong."
The seniors on this team are going to have to replace the void that last year's guys left. With guys like Carnagio, Brozovich, Mitchell, Steve Szymanski, Dane Colvin and Steve Wittkamp, though, the Indians feel confident there will be no dip in leadership.
"I feel like if you're playing good and working hard in practice, the other younger guys will pay attention," Mitchell said. "I'm not going to force myself to be a leader, but if the guys buy into it, I'll definitely try my best."
A lot of younger guys will be playing big factors as well, including shortstop Neal Tyrell. With a good mix of youth and experience, Minooka feels that the sky is the limit for this team.
"Nothing against last year's team, but I feel this year we have a lot more talent coming in than last year," Carnagio said. "Last year we just jelled so well and got along so well. We did everything right, even if we didn't have the best talent. If we gel like we did last year, there's no doubt we can make it down to state again. That's the expectation, and if we can just put the pieces together and get hot at the right time like we did last year, there's no reason why we shouldn't be back down there."
"I think that this group has a pretty good shot to do good things," Petrovic added. "I see a lot of good things on this team. I think teams that see Minooka baseball do respect us now, and they know what we're capable of and what we've accomplished over the past couple of years."