These five Chicago-area baseball players found their comfort ’Zona

Hintz, Pluta, Orloff, Kent and Summerhill are playing college ball for the Wildcats.

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Whitney Young’s Brendan Summerhill during the game against Lake View on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Whitney Young’s Brendan Summerhill during the game against Lake View on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Kirsten Stickney/Sun-Times

University of Arizona assistant baseball coach Trip Couch has a simple solution whenever a select group of players complains.

Couch simply shows them the chilly temperature in Chicago on a phone app before walking outside of his Hi Corbett Field office and placing a telephone call while wearing his Wildcats shorts.

“Casey Hintz gets tired of me doing that,” Couch quipped.

Hintz and fellow freshman pitcher Tony Pluta from St. Viator High School are two of five Chicago-area players who migrated to Tucson to play for an Arizona team that should make its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

And with Couch, in his second year as the Wildcats’ national recruiting coordinator, more area players will be under consideration.

“I have a lot of connections in the Midwest, and I feel like the Midwest is a fertile recruiting ground,” said Couch, whose 10 years as a scout for the Diamondbacks are sandwiched by 25 years of coaching experience at Louisiana-Lafayette, Houston, Texas, South Carolina and Arizona.

Among the latest signings is Mahomet-Seymour High School pitcher Blake Wolters, who struck out 115 in 5823 innings as a junior last spring.

But more essential is that head coach Chip Hale, associate head coach Dave Lawn and Couch have identified recruits who displayed the toughness of playing through inclement weather and possess plenty of upside that has yet to crystallize because of late and shortened high school seasons.

The temptation to pursue a pro career wasn’t enough to sway former Young High School star outfielder Brendan Summerhill, who believes he’ll prosper for three years under Hale and Couch, who have pro experience.

“They made it clear to me this is a place I needed to be because of the support and runway I get, how much they let you make mistakes, make you grow up and have time to mature,” said Summerhill, whose rising stock last spring worried the Wildcats’ staff before he went undrafted. 

“In pro ball, it’s one of those things that you’re on your own, and you’re on your own fast.”

Sophomore left-hander Eric Orloff signed with Arizona well before head coach Jay Johnson departed to LSU after the 2021 season. But any concerns about his role were quelled gradually. Orloff made the most appearances (23) of any Wildcat freshman pitcher and appeared twice in the NCAA Coral Gables Regional. 

“Our arms are fresher,” said Orloff, a former Glenbrook North standout. “In the winter, you’re forced to shut down for two months or throwing bullpens inside but can’t play long toss. You throw into a net, but it isn’t the same. It gives our arms more rest than in the West Coast, where you’re playing year-round.”

Arizona’s interest in Orloff didn’t spike until he threw at a Prep Baseball Report Pro Case, but he committed after a telephone chat and Zoom call during a four-day span.

Orloff was roughed up in his two NCAA tournament appearances, but he earned the chance to pitch in more key situations after striking out four and not allowing an earned run in 3 13 innings at Grand Canyon for his first win March 29.

Orloff admitted he wasn’t expecting to pitch much because of the competition. But after throwing 39 13 innings, “it makes me happy and want to work harder to get more work, especially with how competitive it is,” he said.

Of the five Chicago-area players, perhaps no one is more eager to make his Wildcats debut than redshirt freshman left-hander Jackson Kent from Lake Park High School.

Originally, Kent committed to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, only to decommit on the advice of a friend. But three weeks passed until Couch invited him and his father to visit the Tucson campus.

The trip went smoothly, and Kent committed to the Wildcats a week later.

But Kent redshirted last spring and was relegated to throwing bullpens and participating in practices but not traveling with the team. He credited the coaching staff with maintaining his sanity and keeping him on track for the 2023 season.

“We have that connection, that Midwest blood,” Kent said. “It’s a good thing to have when everyone is getting recruited from California and Arizona. It’s great to see we’re together and getting along well.”

Couch emphasizes, based on his years as an amateur scout, that it’s ominous for high school kids who receive less than a $1 million signing bonus to reach the majors.

“I told these kids, ‘Most of you guys need to go to college, just to learn life and understand taking care of your body, being on time, having a routine, having all the things you need to give you a chance to play in the big leagues,’ ’’ Couch said.

“That’s why the number of major-leaguers that come from colleges is exponentially higher than the high school kids, because they do have a foundation.”

And there’s some freedom. Hintz will pitch this spring for the Wildcats because of need, but he will play the infield in the Prospect League this summer before determining where he’ll stay.

Meanwhile, Summerhill’s left-handed bat fits well in a predominantly right-handed lineup, provided he can find a spot in a talented outfield that includes potential second-round pick Chase Davis.

Arizona opens the 2023 season Friday against No. 2 Tennessee and top college pitcher Chase Dollander at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona. But Summerhill reinforced his desire to improve over the next three seasons against top competition and pave the way for more Chicago high school kids to pursue their dream of playing on a larger stage.

“It would mean a lot,” said Summerhill, who was recruited by Tennessee shortly after de-committing from Kentucky in the summer of 2021 before signing with Arizona. “When you think about Chicago baseball, you think about mostly southwest suburbs of Chicago. There’s good baseball down there, but you never hear about the city of Chicago. 

“I think there are a lot of really talented athletes in the city of Chicago who play baseball, like at Lane Tech, Kenwood, Whitey Young, Morgan Park, Simeon. It would show that kids don’t go to city schools just to play basketball or football.”

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