COAL CITY – Until last spring, 1986 was the answer to what could have been a common trivia question concerning the Coal City varsity baseball team.
The question – when was the last time the Coalers finished with a losing record? Now, in the wake of a 12-16 season, the correct answer is 2013.
“It was the same old thing. We’d be leading, and give up a cheap hit at the end, and we’d make an error, a passed ball and a walk, and it’d come to bite us,” Coal City coach Jerry McDowell said. “We lost twice to Lisle in extra innings, and they won the state championship. We had a lot of games that were right there and lost it by one or two runs.”
Fitting together a lineup has been particularly difficult for McDowell this spring. The Coalers have practiced outside once. A few position players – outfielders Lane Cowherd and Joey Quinn and catcher/infielder D.J. Budde – are likely to remain starters, but much remains up for grabs.
For that reason, Coal City will treat its first two games today at Jacksonville’s Lenz Field against Normal West and Rock Island almost as a tryout. The games were late additions to the schedule; the Coalers were originally supposed to open last Friday until the weather intervened.
“We’re gonna go down with the idea of starting 18 different guys and throwing about six different pitchers,” McDowell said. “Next week, we play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and a doubleheader Saturday. We’d like to establish something [Wednesday] and have an idea.”
Pitching is an area in which the Coalers have depth and experience. Seniors Nate Chapman and Alex Wills and sophomore Brad Littleton have started for the varsity in the past; Quinn, senior Zach Mellen, junior Ricky Collins and sophomores Nick Micetich and Jared Skubic are also listed as pitchers.
“Got a lot of returning pitchers. I feel like I’ve improved myself, and I know some of my teammates have improved a lot over the offseason,” Chapman said. “I feel like I’ve improved my change-up, and I might throw a few miles an hour faster.”
Getting back above .500 is a primary goal for the Coalers, McDowell said, as is a top-half finish in their Interstate Eight Conference division and advancing to the championship game of what he thinks will be a “tough” 3A regional.
“Their attitudes have been really good,” McDowell said, “Where in the past, we might have had a couple guys come in, second- or third-year starters, knew they were gonna start, ‘cause it’s a small-school situation. Now we’ve got some good attitudes. The kids have really come in and worked hard.”