Small-ball Vernon Hills goes big in early season

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VERNON HILLS — It’s no secret Vernon Hills’ baseball team likes to play small ball, using bunts, hit-and-runs and other tactics on offense.

That’s why it caught some Cougars off-guard when they scored 13 runs in a March 24 game against Harrisburg during a trip downstate. Count senior pitcher Pat Crowley among them.

“This isn’t taking anything away from any of the guys, but because of our style of play, that really surprised me a little bit when our offense just exploded like that,” Crowley said. “But that’s a good kind of surprise. The kind you want to have behind you on the mound as a pitcher.

“Harrisburg is supposed to be a pretty good team this season too, from what I’ve heard. That really gave our team’s confidence an early boost.”

The victory is just one of several eye-opening wins Vernon Hills has racked up during a 5-1 start through last week. Other area teams have taken notice.

“I think Mundelein’s program, just like Libertyville’s or Vernon Hills’ has a long tradition of producing kids who are taught well, love playing the game and are all well-coached,” said Carmel second-year coach Dann Giesey, whose Corsairs won the ESCC last season. “The way they all prepare is a big key, too. Those teams are always ready to play.”

One big reason for the Cougars’ early success on offense is No. 3 hitter John Goerke. He’s been red hot, and had a pair of hits against Harrisburg.

“John’s been absolutely lacing the ball,” senior teammate Nick Newman said. “But the way we’ve come out of the gates hitting … it’s crazy. Our coach is all about small ball, and we’ve been getting a ton of hits. It’s nice to see we may have the potential to throw together an offensive year on top of the pitching we have.

“Last year we were really, really defensive-minded and we didn’t have a lot of big hitters. Jordan Freibrun is smacking the ball everywhere for us, too. A huge team improvement from last year.”

Hot start with the bats aside, the Cougars know pitching will remain their strong suit as they begin their home games on their artificial turf infield.

“Having a turf infield is definitely an advantage for us, because not only do you get true hops on ground balls most of the time, but as a pitcher you can use it to your advantage in certain situations,” Crowley said.

Crowley tossed a six-inning no-hitter in Vernon Hills’ first game of the season, a 7-2 victory over Waukegan. Three throwing errors led to Waukegan’s runs. While downstate, the Cougars also beat a typically strong Jacobs program, 4-3.

Weather permitting, the Cougars were scheduled to play a NSC crossover game against Lake Division foe Zion-Benton this week, then a nonconference game against Barrington. The game against the highly touted Broncos could be telling.

“We can’t wait to play against some local competition this week and see how we do,” Newman said. “Hopefully the weather holds up and the fields are playable, because it’s been a brutal winter.”

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