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Regional goal set for Morris baseball in 2014

MORRIS – What the Morris varsity team did not accomplish during a 27-7 season in 2013 is as paramount in the minds of the Redskins as what it did.

Morris remained without a regional championship since 2003 after losing 4-3 to LaSalle-Peru in the title game at the Class 3A Ottawa Regional last May. The Redskins went 10-5 in Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference East play, finishing in a second-place with Sycamore, a game behind Yorkville, in the conference standings.

"We know how close we got – pretty much the closest you can get to winning the regional championship," senior shortstop Trevor Lines said. "That was definitely one of our major goals. This year, we know we have the potential to win the regional championship and more than that."

Between Lines, senior second baseman Matt Bernickus and senior first baseman Grant Schluntz, the Redskins have three-quarters of what was their typical starting infield in 2013 back. Another senior, Austin Conrod, was their primary right fielder in 2013 and should remain in that role.

Also back is senior Tim Smyk, who Morris coach Todd Kein tabbed as the Redskins' ace entering the 2013 season. A torn labrum limited Smyk to 32 2/3 innings as a junior. Smyk, who recently verbaled to Illinois Wesleyan University, says he is fully healthy, and Kein labels him "our No. 1 guy."

"Went through therapy and all that stuff and then got back into it over the summer, probably 2-3 weeks into the summer got fully healthy and then just built off of that last year," Smyk said. "Actually I'm throwing harder, compared to last year, just because of the extensive therapy and the extra shoulder workouts I do now."

Senior lefty Nick Evola is the other clear-cut member of the starting rotation. Evola had 33 strikeouts against just 13 walks in 2013. Lines may also join the rotation, but Kein admits he would prefer not to move him away from shortstop. Junior Tom Cheshareck, a varsity newcomer, should also pitch often. Beyond that, innings are up for grabs.

"We have a variety of guys who can pitch," Kein said. "Whether it be in a starting role, a relief role – we'll cross those bridges as they present themselves."

There are not as many jobs being contested behind the pitchers. Starters at third base, where Smyk is a candidate to play when he is not pitching, and left field are still uncertain.

But Kein likes what he has to replace key up-the-middle graduation losses. At catcher, Kein thinks the season senior Geno Persico spent backing up 2013 Morris Daily Herald Player of the Year Jake Capko will be beneficial. In center field, Kein says he is "confident" in Kyle Hill, who will take over for Jason Matteson.

Though many of the Redskins' likely starters have been determined, the order in which they will fill the batting order has not.

"That's kind of a big question mark for us. We've just got some things that we're still working at," Kein said.

Morris is scheduled to play 14 games prior to its first NIB12 East series with Yorkville, which begins April 14. Though Kein cautions against overlooking anyone in the conference, from Yorkville and Sycamore to 2013 cellar-dweller Rochelle, he is optimistic about the Redskins' chances.

"I think we're right there," Kein said. "I won't call us a favorite, 'cause I don't think we need to talk in those terms yet, but I would say that a conference championship is as much in our grasp as it is in a few other teams'."

After playing regionals at places like Bloomington in 2009 and Bremen in 2011, the Redskins have played closer to home, and against more familiar competition, the last two years. Having watched his team come oh-so-close to ending its regional drought in 2013, Kein is hoping for another chance against a similar field.

"Hopefully the IHSA doesn't throw us a curveball in that respect this year," Kein said. "We feel like we're in pretty good position. With the talent that we have and the work ethic that this team has and the returning experience in key spots that we have, I feel like a regional title is well within our reach."

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