The weather on Media Day for the Normal CornBelters of the Frontier League on May 3 was something more appropriate for April, possibly even late March: Cold, gusty winds, and a threat of rain. As a result, new manager Billy Horn abbreviated the session and made sure his team got their work done plus took care of the obligatory head shots used on the scoreboard and by the media.

With Brooks Carey moving on from the CornBelters to manage the New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League, Normal hired Billy Horn during the off-season to serve as the new manager. Last season with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League, another independent baseball league, Horn served as pitching coach and assisted in player procurement related activities. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Horn was pitching coach and oversaw player procurement for the Ottawa Champions of the CanAm League as a part of Manager Hal Lanier’s staff. In 2016, Billy helped Ottawa to a CanAm League Championship. Lanier was Normal’s very first manager when the team debuted in 2010. Horn began his managerial career in 2012 with the Roswell Invaders of the Pecos League in 2012.

By the time you read this, the ‘Belters will have played five exhibition games under their skipper as preparation for opening day on Friday when Traverse City comes to The Corn Crib for a three-game series.

“We’re going to come out and play hard, and our expectations, obviously, are to win as many ball games as we can and give this city a chance at a Frontier League title,” Horn said. There are 35 men in spring training and Horn has been conducting evaluations to try to get that roster down to 24 by opening day.

Six of the players on ‘Belters roster are returning players who have demonstrated what they can do: Pitchers Anthony Herrara, Scott Sebald, Jonathan DeMarte, and Matt Portland; and infielders Justin Fletcher and Santiago Chirino.

Horn said he and Brooks Carey have a similar managerial style, so playing for him, he feels “will be an easy transition” for the team.

Justin Fletcher: Pekin native Justin Fletcher is the closest central Illinois native who will be slugging away at the plate for the CornBelters this year. His first season with Normal began midway through the 2016 season. “Billy’s a great guy,” said Fletcher, an infielder who has divided his time between playing second and third. “You can see he cares about his players, so we’re all excited to get this season going.”

Santiago Chirino’s Last Season Here: CornBelters fans have become accustomed to watching Santiago Chirino bring in runs at the plate and prevent opposing scoring while in the infield. But because he will turn 27 during the next offseason, under Frontier League rules, 2018 will be his last as a member of the CornBelters. He began his career in Normal in 2013.

“I want to win a championship,” Chirino said as the chief goal for his teammates and himself at the end of this season. “That’s something I want to give this organization, to the town, and to the fans.”

League Continues Taking Mondays Off: The Frontier League continues taking Mondays off for most of the season. Games at The Corn Crib will start with first pitches at 7:05p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and at 6:05p.m. for Sunday games. The gates open one hour prior to first pitch.

By Steve Robinson | May 1, 2018 - 10:07 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, Normal West HS, The Normalite

The visiting Iron scored in the first inning as pitcher Mackenzie Leonard was dodged by West pitching all day, being walked five appearances at the plate. With two out, she scored on a Jenna White single, giving NCHS a 1-0 lead and keeping two on base only to see the Iron’s own pitcher, Jessi Grove, become the third out in the opening inning.

The Lady Iron put two more on the board in the top of the third inning when shortstop Ashley Klinzing singled followed by center fielder Reese Johnson singling and West pitcher Bailey Turner getting walked for what was the second time in the contest at that time. Ella Fletcher’s base clearing single gave NCHS a 3-0 lead. A single by Fletcher in the fourth inning cleared the bases of Klinzing and Johnson a second time in the fourth inning, giving the Lady Iron a 5-0 lead midway through that inning.

A single by Bailey Turner advanced Jess Jacobs and allowed Mikayla Fairfield to cross the plate for West for the first time in the bottom of the fourth inning, cutting the Iron’s lead, 5-1. a double by Josi Grove aided by a single and advancing to second by Jacobs helped with that score. A single by Addi Boundy scored Grove who doubled earlier in the fifth inning, putting NCHS up, 6-1

But Jacobs gave Wildcats faithful in attendance a glimmer of hope blasting a bottom of the sixth inning first pitch over the center field wall for a home run, reducing the Iron’s lead, 6-2. But while that was seen as a momentum booster, the Wildcats couldn’t boost run production beyond that. With one out in the top of the seventh, leadoff hitter Klinzing singled and then scored to avoid a single with two out resulting in the final score.

The win lifted NCHS to 14-2 overall including a perfect 5-0 in the Big 12 Conference. Normal West slid to 11-10 overall which includes a 4-1 conference mark. Leonard earned the victory while West’s Savanna Mattson had the loss.

Leonard was intentionally walked at all five of her at-bats and NCHS head coach said he understood that logic on the part of his cross-town opponent. “We’ve been seeing that quite a bit and we’re just used to it now,” NCHS head coach Jeff Cole said. “Mackenzie did a lot of damage to these guys her freshman year. As a result, Cole added, he didn’t fault West head coach April Schermann for employing that strategy.

“We haven’t been able to piece together seven consecutive innings of great softball,” said Schermann. “We had some innings where we fought back and had some momentum going. But we need to do that consistently for all seven innings. Every loss is a learning opportunity and we have a lot of notes from this game that we’re going to work on.”

By Steve Robinson | April 10, 2018 - 10:59 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Eight days not playing baseball due to poor weather conditions after having been on the road down south was bound to get to a team sooner or later. For Normal Community High School as they took on Unit 5 arch rival Normal Community West, sooner was the first inning on Tuesday on their home field. That four-run first inning was all it took for the visiting Wildcats to beat the Ironmen, 4-2, in what were still blustery conditions.

The contest was the Big 12 Conference season opener for both teams, and Normal West (5-6 overall and 1-0 Big 12) wasted no time getting runs on the scoreboard thanks to a lead-off walk by designated hitter Brennan Diedrich. That was followed by a base hit by first baseman Jake Marti, who achieved a first base hit for his team in the game against NCHS starter J.D. Thiele. A base hit by catcher Ben Smith drove home Diedrich and Marti to give the Wildcats a 2-0 lead.

With the next batter, right fielder Cody Hardt at the plate, Smith stole second. Hardt singled and the pair advanced to second and third on a balk called against Ironmen starting pitcher Thiele. A single by left fielder C. J. Lewis brought Hardt and Smith across the plate with one out for a 4-0 lead.

Walks were the mode used to get two runs across the plate for NCHS (5-2) in the home half of the fourth inning. With one out, right fielder Sam Kahwaji singled. He was followed by first baseman Jacob Russo who walked. With two on, the next batter, first baseman Logan Fricker, also walked. With bases loaded, Normal West pitcher McCade Brown walked in Kahwaji and Russo before Normal West pitcher Tyler Thierry grounded out and was followed by a walk of left fielder Brody Fletcher. That resulted in what turned out to be the final score. The inning ended with designated hitter Nick Gilhaus striking out on a Brown pitch. Gilhaus was one of 11 batters who struck out with Brown on the mound. The victory gave Brown a 3-1 record.

Of Brown’s fourth inning struggles, Normal West head coach Chris Hawkins said, “He had one tough inning and getting his control back.” Prior to this contest, the Wildcats’ last game was a road game at Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin on April 2, Hawkins explained.

NCHS head coach Ryan Short encouraged his players to “have a short memory about that first inning.” Once they did that, he said, his players did well. “We did have some base runners in the first two or three innings, but we just couldn’t get anybody around.”

Short said his team practices under these conditions as much as possible to adjust to the cold because during the season, it’s likely to be like that until mid-May.

By Steve Robinson | March 15, 2018 - 10:46 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Normal Community West High School ’s Softball season opened on a somber note March 15 at Maxwell Park as, before head coach April Schermann’s team took to the field against non-conference rival Metamora, they paid tribute to Olivia “Livi” Sonetz, the team’s shortstop, died March 7 from injuries she suffered when her car was struck by another vehicle.

Normal West’s Softball team paid tribute to 17-year-old Sonetz as part of their lineup introductions before the game with the Redbirds began. A pair of bats shaped together into a cross with a softball attached stood just inside the fencing behind home plate. A light blue and white “O” was painted into the sand in front of it.

Ellie Sonetz, Livi’s older sister who also played at West, stood in for her sister, wearing her sister’s number 0 uniform when Livi was introduced as the second baseman, batting ninth. The crowd of roughly 700 at Maxwell Park registered their feelings with applause as her older sister stood in for Livi. As each member of the team was introduced, they touched the makeshift memorial before standing in line for the national anthem.

Prior to the first pitch, the team released sky blue and white balloons into the air and hugged one another in the pitcher’s circle. There was also a moment of silence for Livi.

As the game began, Schermann made a substitution for Ellie, putting Kacie Quick in at second prior to the start of the contest. Quick took a knee before the game started, as well.

In the stands, there were players and coaches from Twin City softball teams and teams throughout the county in attendance. University High, Bloomington Central Catholic, Bloomington High School, Downs Tri-Valley, Holy Trinity School, and members of Bloomington-Normal Girls’ Softball Association (BNGSA) were all visible in the crowd.

The tone may have been somber at the beginning, but once the game got going, there was cheering, albeit subdued, and rooting from the crowd. The Wildcats blanked the Redbirds to start the season, 5-0.

Parkside Junior High Softball Parents Operate Concessions: Normally, West parents man the concession stand at Maxwell Park, but Megan Davis, a parent of a Parkside Junior High Softball player, offered to get and rounded up volunteers of seven PJHS parents to operate the stand so that any West Softball parents who wanted to see the pre-game activities and the game could do so. “We told the West parents we had it covered, and that was it,” Davis explained.

By Steve Robinson | March 10, 2018 - 10:02 pm
Posted in Category: Central Catholic, The Normalite

PEORIA – The way Bloomington Central Catholic head coach Jason Welch saw his team’s Illinois High School Association Class 2A Championship game against Pinckneyville, the Saints wanted to issue a challenge to the Panthers.

But when BCC (25-7) went from leading 7-6 after a free throw by senior forward Patrick Rahuba at 5:14 in the first quarter to owning a 12-6 lead courtesy of another Rahuba charity stripe shot over three minutes later, it looked as though the challenge might have been too great for the Panthers, as the Saints registered a 69-61 victory to come in 3rd place in the Class.

“I’m just extremely proud of these guys,” BCC head coach Jason Welch said during the postgame news conference. “They’ve worked extremely hard and the guys off the bench did a great job. Our kids came out today and we gave Pinckneyville a challenge.” Going into the second quarter, BCC owned a 14-8 lead.

Only a three by senior guard Grant Jausel cutting BCC’s lead, 21-15, at 4:59 in the second quarter, followed by a Jausel jumper that made BCC’s lead, 23-17 seemed the closest the Panthers would come in the first half before BCC would go on a 5-0 run which helped stretch the Saints lead, 28-17, at the 2:52 mark. Fouls by Pinckneyville (31-4) sent senior guard Elijah Davis to the line making the Saints lead, 30-18, on the way to a 35-20 halftime lead.

A layup by senior guard Austyn Ellison, free throws by fouled junior guard Luke Yoder, and a trey from senior forward Jack Gilmore had BCC owning a 42-25 lead at the 4:58 mark in the third quarter. But threes by Jausel and sophomore guard Dawson Yates, plus a deuce from Jausel allowed the Panthers to come within nine, 49-40, with 1:29 left in the quarter. An Ellison trey with 35 seconds left restored BCC’s double-digit lead as the fourth quarter began, 52-40.

But the fourth quarter began with BCC’s lead reduced to seven on an unanswered trey and deuce by senior forward Kyle Luke, giving the Saints a 52-45 lead with 7:28 left. The Panthers came within four, 56-52, thanks free throws and a trey by senior guard J. C. Moll and a jumper by Kyle. The Panthers came within three – their closest margin, 64-61 – on a Jausel layup at the 1:23 mark. But after that, beginning with a pair of free throws by senior guard James Morris, BCC finished the game on a 5-0 run.

Ellison and Gilmore scored 10 points each for BCC. Pinckneyville had four players in double figures led by Moll’s 16 points, followed by 15 from Yates, 14 from Jausel, and 10 from senior forward Tyler Rice.

Welch credited senior leadership from Rahuba, Ellison, Morris, Gilmore, Davis, forward Owen Talbott, and center Garrison Kear for the success his team had throughout the season which led the team getting to State.

“Everybody stepped up defensively,” Ellison said during the postgame news conference.

“It feels amazing to be finishing with a win, but knowing that it’s my last time to play with my brothers, these guys aren’t just my teammates, they’re my best friends,” said Eli Davis. “It feels good that we got to leave a legacy and that we got to finish on top.”

Pinckneyville head coach Bob Waggoner admitted the news conference would be “hard for me” because he would be losing the seniors on the team to graduation. As for the contest, Waggoner said the team’s biggest fear wasn’t losing but rather letting down the small community of just over 5,400 in Perry County in southern Illinois. Because the team is close-knit, off-and-on during the interviews, boys wiped away tears.

Waggoner said BCC “was a lot quicker, their pressure on the ball hurt us early.” He admitted it was tough to prepare for Winnebago in the semifinal Friday, and then turn around to face BCC Saturday because the two teams had decidedly different playing systems.

BCC Loses Semifinal, 60-49, To Chicago Orr: BCC had hoped to stay in front of their semifinal opponent and Class 2A reigning champion, Chicago Orr, when the two met on Friday on Peoria’s big stage. And for nearly two full quarters, the Saints pulled that off. In the first quarter, thanks to a jumper from junior forward Tommy Nelson and a trey from junior guard Luke Yoder, the Saints owned a 9-4 lead at the 5:24 mark in the period. Two free throws by Orr’s Tyronn Mosley followed by a rebound shot by senior guard James Morris kept BCC out front, 11-11-6 with 4:34 left. A trey each from senior forward Jack Gilmore and senior guard Austyn Ellison extended BCC’s lead, 17-11, with 2:55 left in the quarter en route to starting the second quarter with a 19-15 lead.

BCC (25-7 following this game) stayed in front, 26-20, on a trey by Gilmore, and 26-22, but that was followed shortly by a BCC basket by junior forward Tommy Nelson put BCC up, 28-23. That lead prompted a timeout from Orr head coach Louis Adams with 4:38 until halftime. Following the timeout, a trey and two free throws by Orr senior guard Chase Adams helped pull the Spartans within three of BCC, 32-29, giving the Saints reason to call time with 1:24 until the half. But after that, a deuce by Orr senior forward Dannie Smith and a jumper by BCC senior guard Elijah Davis a deuce by senior guard Brian Hernandez put Orr in front for the first time, 34-31 with 38 seconds in the half. But the teams would enter the half tied following a trey by Orr senior guard Brian Hernandez with 8 seconds in the quarter. The teams would enter the third quarter tied at 34-all as a result.

The beginning of the third quarter started out with Smith hitting a jumper to put Orr (29-4 after this game) up, 36-34 and from there, BCC found themselves in chase mode for the remainder of the contest despite a three in that quarter by Ellison, and deuces by senior forward Patrick Rahuba and Morris. As a result, Orr owned a 51-45 lead going into the fourth quarter.

A free throw by Orr senior forward Raekwon Drake nudged Orr’s lead to 52-45 at 6:56 in the last quarter. Free throws by Yoder sliced that lead to five, 52-47 with 4:45 left but a basket and a free throw by Drake pushed the lead to 55-47. Nelson added a deuce to cut the lead to 55-49 before free throws by Smith and Adams, and a dunk by senior guard Emanuel Oneal closed out the contest, advancing the Spartans to the title game.

Orr head coach Adams blamed falling behind BCC in the opening period to his team “not having any sense of direction. We rely on defense pretty heavily. BCC shoots the ball pretty good. For us to come out tied that we were in the second half, we couldn’t get no worse. We could only get better. In the second half, our boys came out and played like they normally do.”

“We played a really great Chicago Orr team. They’re battle-tested,” said BCC head coach Jason Welch. “They did a great job. Our kids did a nice job of resisting for as long as we could. They did a nice job. I was proud of them. We fought our brains out. Ultimately, they’re a really good basketball team and we tip our hat to them and say, ‘congratulations.’”

Despite that loss, Welch said he had a team that showed they were tough. The Saints only were outpaced on rebounds by a 14-11 count. Welch said that stat showed, “we’ve got a bunch of fighters in here. That’s what we’ve got…a bunch of fighters. The guys played their guts out, ultimately gave themselves a chance to win “ He said Orr may have made more shots than BCC, but in Welch’s words, “They didn’t out-tough us.”