High expectations for Grant

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They have been there and done that.

And now that they’re there again, the question Grant will answer in the next month is if they can do it again.

On display in the school is the huge trophy the Bulldogs earned last spring for finishing third in the Class 4A state tournament. With it are regional and sectional plaques the team earned along the tourney trail.

But not there is the plaque for winning the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division title last year. And there’s good reason for that. The Bulldogs finished fourth in the seven-team league, which is middle-of-the-pack status in a division in which the Bulldogs are, by far, the biggest school.

Fast-forward to 2013 and …. and here we go again.

Despite returning seven seniors from last year’s starting lineup, the NSC Prairie title will be won this month by some school not named Grant.

And it remains to be seen if the Bulldogs (14-8 overall) can recapture the magic of last year’s run to state.

“We’ve been struggling. We lost five of seven coming into the game against Antioch (a Grant win by a 10-6 score in which they scored six times in the seventh), and five of those were division games,” said coach Dave Behm. “In the middle we beat Prairie Ridge and we beat Lake Forest, two pretty good teams.

“You have to play well to win in our division. I know the Prairie sometimes gets overshadowed by the (North Suburban) Lake, but there are five really good pitchers in our division, and you have to play well to win games. We haven’t played as well as we needed to in some of those games, and teams have made us pay.”

The coach did note that last year’s tourney run keeps this club focused on what still can be in 2013.

“Absolutely it helps, but it’s not something we’re banking on,” Behm said. “We’re banking on getting better. We made some mistakes to lose games that we have to fix. We didn’t play outstanding against Antioch, but we played well enough to win, and that was the key. We played solid defense, we hit the ball, and we did enough pitching. If we can do two out of those three things well and not give the game away with the other, we give ourselves a chance to win.”

Grant’s biggest problem this year is a problem that all teams face: Pitching that struggles at times.

“Our pitching has been down. It was a very solid to start, but it’s been tough,” Behm said. “We played nine games in nine days, and maybe three of them went to extra innings. Four of them had over 10 runs scored, so there have been a lot of games, and a lot of long games.

“That really tests the limits of your pitching. Fortunately, we were able to get a rest with prom last weekend. We had three days with no baseball. I think it was good for us to get away, rest up, and refocus. I think overall they did a nice job against Antioch. They walked too many guys, but other than that they did great. If we hadn’t walked anybody, they might not have scored.”

One of Grant’s key returnees is senior shortstop Jordan Villareal. He’s disappointed in the first six weeks of the season.

“We have high expectations. I hold myself accountable, but it’s on all of us,” he said. “We need 24 guys pulling the same way. Unfortunately, we haven’t been on the same page very often. We have to kick it into gear here pretty quick.”

As for a tourney repeat of last year, Villareal knows this is 2013 and not 2012.

“It’s a new season and a new year,” he said. “That was a lot of fun, but it was last year. All we can do is look at what’s in front of us and take steps to get better.”

On the losing side of the game was Antioch veteran coach Paul Petty, whose team is chasing Wauconda for the NSC Prairie title.

“Starting pitching has been pretty good, and we’re starting to hit the ball more, but we’ve really struggled defensively,” Petty said. “We’re improving, but we started from ‘ground zero’ to ‘getting better at defense.’ We’re losing one-run games because we let teams off the hook.”

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