By Steve Robinson | July 14, 2018 - 10:46 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

The Normal CornBelters sent six players to the Frontier League annual All-Star Game at CarSheild Stadium in O’Fallon, Mo., home of the River City Rascals, but only one of those players – right fielder Derrick Lawless – saw action from first pitch to final out.

The game’s teams were divided a little differently other that by what division their home team belonged to. This year, the league billed the two sides as Rookies versus Experienced Players. And Lawless, having been through the minor league system of the Toronto Blue Jays, showed plenty of experience, hitting two home runs to help the Experienced squad win the game, 8-3.

“When we took the infield for the All-Star Game, our side only had four outfielders, so two of us would be playing a full game,” Loveless said of his most recent All-Star contest. “I wound up playing right field the entire game.” Not only did he shine in the outfield, but at bat, too, hitting two homers out of the park. This was his second such All-Star event, having played in the Midwest League’s mid-season affair.

If Lawless’ performance startled fans, they were not alone. “I was actually startled about that myself,” Lawless said, explaining he had only done that a couple of times his whole career.

The 25-year-old started his playing career in 2011 in the Toronto system until he was released at the start of this season when he didn’t get resigned and did some job hunting which didn’t see any offers from other teams materialize. But a player friend of his put him in touch with CornBelters manager Billy Horn to see if there was the possibility of playing here.

Coming to Normal wasn’t foreign to Lawless and not just because it’s within driving distance of his native Solon, Iowa, near Iowa City. But rather, his familiarity with Normal comes from having participated in a baseball showcase event at The Corn Crib when he was 17.

Lawless said his faith is helping him through his wait to get back into the minor league system. “God is a big part of my life and if it’s meant for me to go back into the minor leagues, I’ll put in the hard work and enjoy the time that I’m here.”

“I definitely hope that if I get looked at, teams will know ‘he’s a guy who knows what he’s doing and does it every day’ and hope it pays off,” Lawless said.

When he was in the Toronto system, Lawless played in six different cities, including with the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League, an opponent of the Peoria Chiefs.

“When I came to Normal, I was just expecting a good crowd of people who love to come and watch baseball being played,” he explained.

Loveless and his wife of 2 ½ years, Ashley, live in another minor league baseball hub, Durham, N, C. and have a 5-month-old son, Derrin.

Statistically, just before games played July 15, Lawless has appeared in 49 games, had 54 hits including 5 home runs, 8 doubles, and 3 triples in 178 at-bats while playing for Normal. That has given him a .303 batting average. In addition, he has driven in 24 runs, been hit by a pitch once, and struck out 46 times.

Loveless said he has tried through actions moreso than words to show his teammates what they should do to get to the minors. If he gives advice at all, it would be “to learn from any failures you might experience,” he continued. “If you don’t learn from it, those failures could be repeated.”

Of Loveless, his current manager said, “He should still be in an organization’s system. There’s no doubt about it.” Horn said he has managed to interest 15 teams in Lawless, but those teams currently have full rosters, so it now a waiting game to see where a spot opens up. Horn added that since the annual draft in June, it takes teams about a month and a half or slightly longer to start thinking of making moves which would involve calling out for players if drafted players don’t pan out with some clubs.

“We’re just hoping Loveless gets picked up any day here and off he’ll go,” Horn said.

Until that day comes, the CornBelters and their fans are glad to have Lawless here.

Road Trip Upcoming: Earlier this week, Eastern Division leader Washington visited The Corn Crib to try to stay atop their division while attempting to spoil Normal trying to gain ground in the Western Division. Friday through Sunday, the CornBelters are at Schaumburg. Following the league-imposed Monday off, the road trip continues with Normal visiting Florence. As of Sunday, Florence was holding on to fourth place in the Western Division four games out behind division leading-River City. The CornBelters are were in fifth place 5 ½ games behind River City.

The CornBelters will be back at The Corn Crib on July 27-29 for a three-game homestand against Gateway Grizzles.

By Steve Robinson | July 7, 2018 - 10:37 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

Normal CornBelters pitcher Jack Landwehr smiles when he explains he played college baseball while attending Illinois State University , graduating in May 2017, but had to be discovered by the team at a Frontier League tryout in California during this past off-season.

In the year he was waiting to be picked up, Landwehr played college summer ball “just to try to get some looks” by teams, he said. “But, unfortunately, nothing panned out.” But going to the California Winter League in Palm Springs this past January aided Landwehr being found and signed by the CornBelters.

Going into games last Saturday, Landwehr pitched 38 innings in his last seven games striking out 29 and walking 8 while carrying a 2.60 earned run average, putting him among the top three pitchers on Manager Billy Horn’s squad.

Landwehr had a 2-2 record when he and I sat down for a chat before games played July 6 and will turn 24 Aug. 16. He said the ‘Belters’ current situation of being in next to last place in the league’s Western Division just a few games away from hitting .500 “doesn’t really affect me because I just keep going out and competing each and every time. When I’m on that mound, I’m competing. And when I’m at practice, I’m out there to get better each and every day.”

As a starting pitcher, Landwehr said, “I want to give my team the best chance to win that day and that’s not allowing any runs. Just keep retiring, retiring, retiring batters with next pitch, next pitch, next pitch. Coming out with a lead is the big goal.”

Although he’s a starter now and was one in high school, at ISU, his assignment was as the closer for the Redbirds his last two years there.

The best thing Landwehr said he has enjoyed about being a professional ball player has been working with guys who have played affiliated ball and been through the minor league system. “I’ve just been picking these guys’ brains and just getting better from watching what they do,” he explained.

Landwehr said he and the catchers he’s worked with thus far, Cody Erickson and Tanner Lubach, have “developed just incredible chemistry. I couldn’t have had this start without them because they have called just great games for me. We’ve got incredible chemistry out there and I couldn’t have had this start without them because they are so knowledgeable. Erickson, like Landwehr, is a rookie straight out of Minnesota ’s St. Paul College while Lubach has played for the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.

His folks, John and Maribeth Landwehr, have been down to see him pitch knowing now that he’s working as a starter. “They’re really, really happy for me because they knew I could play at this level and it just took a little bit longer to get picked up,” Landwehr said. “They’ve been a huge support reminding me to keep believing in myself.”

Normal Gets Pitcher Zach Kirby In Trade With Freedom: Prior to opening the final series before the All-Star break, the Normal CornBelters have announced the trade for Zach Kirby from the Florence Freedom for a player to be named later and the release of David Perez.

Kirby joins Normal after he threw five shutout innings with only giving up two hits and one walk against the ‘Belters on Sunday to earn his first victory of the season. He is entering his second stint in the Frontier League as he played for Florence part of last season and was signed to an extension last November. This season Kirby is 1-4 in nine games (5 starts) and has thrown for 35.1 innings along with 19 strikeouts.

Season’s 2nd Half Starts With Otters Visiting: This past week has been Frontier League All-Star Break week at O’Fallon, Mo. , home of the River City Rascals. But it will be back to work for the team Friday as they host Western Division leader Evansville Otters for three games Friday through Sunday, half of a six-game homestand. After the Otters leave and the league-imposed off-day Monday, the Eastern Division leading Washington Wild Things will be at The Corn Crib Tuesday through Thursday, July 17-19. Weekday and Saturday games start with first pitch at 7:05p.m. and Sunday first pitch is at 6:05p.m.

By Steve Robinson | June 4, 2018 - 10:21 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

BLOOMINGTON – Fourteen years have gone by since the last time University High’s Softball team made it to a Super Sectional contest. But no thanks to New Lenox Providence, the Pioneers season ended six innings short of achieving the team’s goal making it to State Finals. Two four run innings in the first and second innings secured an 11-1 victory in six innings for the Celtics over the Pioneers. U-High’s season under head coach Al Toliver ends at 24-11. The game had roughly 125 fans in attendance at the softball field at Illinois Wesleyan University .

After U-High’s first three batters – freshman shortstop Abby Knight, left fielder Jen Kuhn, and senior second baseman Lexi Tennison – went down in order to open the game, New Lenox Providence (28-11) went to work in the bottom of the first inning. With one out, Pioneers sophomore starting pitcher Maddie Roop walked senior catcher Taylor Young and junior catcher Shannon Smith before a single by junior center fielder Lex Leighton loaded the bases for freshman first baseman Nicole Mucha.

Mucha smacked a double which cleared the bases putting her on second base, giving the Celtics a 3-0 lead. Mucha was called out at third thanks to an outfield throw received by senior third baseman Grace Matheis as Mucha was trying to slide in. New Lenox Providence did get a fourth run when Layton scored on a double by designated hitter Hannah Falejczyk, increasing the lead to 4-0.

U-High switched out sophomore starting pitcher Maddie Roop after an inning and a third for senior pitcher Maddie Boucher, but the Celtics would get four more runs off of Boucher, expanding their lead, 8-0, after two innings.

The Pioneers’ lone run came in the top of the fourth inning as senior second baseman Lexus Tennyson’s blast into left field gave her a single. That was followed by Boucher who was called out on base running after having singled but tried to get a double only to get throw out trying to get back to first. In the ensuing play, Tennyson made it to third and scored on a single by sophomore center fielder Emily O’Leary, giving the Pioneers their only run of the contest, 8-1.

The Celtics scored two more in the bottom of the fourth and one more in the bottom of the sixth to close out the scoring, but the Pioneers showed some spirit thanks to sophomore right fielder Makaylea Sepich who had three catches including one diving catch in the sixth inning robbing Courtney Mahalik of a base hit.

“I knew they were probably a really good hitting team and they showed it today,” said Pioneers head coach Al Toliver. “They’re just a very solid, solid team up and down the line, so my hat’s off to them,” he added.

About his team’s season, Toliver said, “Winning the Sectional over at Washington is a huge highlight for us. And then coming back home, we hoped for better today, but today, the better team won.”

For the Celtics’ part, their head coach, Jay Biesterfeld, said going into this contest his team was hoping “for a good first few innings and put some pressure on them. Obviously, things worked out a little better than we expected.”

“We just wanted to come out and drive the ball and make some plays,” Biesterfeld added.

By Steve Robinson | June 3, 2018 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

Normal Wildcats head Girls’ Soccer coach Val Walker tried not to let his players get ahead of themselves as this season began. Most coaches won’t allow players to think too far ahead beyond the game in front of them. But in recent years, it sounds like the Wildcats got ahead of themselves to the point that, when this season started, Walker instituted the “one game at a time” approach. That approach got the Wildcats all the way to the final four of State Finals, starting with a sendoff from the school on May 31 before heading to the campus of North Central College in Naperville to compete in the Illinois High School Association Class 2A State Soccer Tournament.

The approach Wes employed this season resulted in the Wildcats finishing the year with a 20-7-3 mark after losing the semifinal to Arlington Heights St. Viator, 1-0, and then needing to summon the strength to try to break a tie in the consolation match, winding up earning fourth place after a 1-0 overtime loss to Lemont High School .

But before the Wildcats left for Naperville via charter bus, the team bonded over a meal, encouraging each other and hearing a pre-departure pep talk from their coach. His talk came complete with props, but not any props, but the two trophies West had won at State Soccer in years past – a 3rd place trophy from 2008, and a 2nd place trophy from their 2014 appearance.

From there, Walker encouraged, there was only one direction to go as a result of the team’s previous performances – 1st place.

“I can’t wait,” said Julia Marsaglia, one of the seniors who is a team captain, when the team went around the room to express the feeling they were having as the big event drew near.

As the team boarded the charter bus afterward, between 60-75 well-wishers waved and cheered in the school’s front parking lot along Parkside Rd.

Once they were in Naperville , I kept tabs on the team’s progress. Their end result wasn’t what they had hoped for, but they were able to add to the school’s trophy case after a long season.

Sunday Celebration: Fourth place is never the goal when a sports team’s season begins. But sometimes, that’s where it winds up through one circumstance or another. Despite that finish, there was cause for celebration, and celebrate is exactly what the Wildcats did at a rally in the school cafeteria on Sunday. The players and many of their parents were in attendance for the post-season event.

Walker opened the celebration by saying he couldn’t do what he does “without a strong family foundation,” as a means of thanking his wife, Mary, and their kids. He also thanked his assistant Brady Piepenbrink, Lewis, and West Principal David Johnson for their support.

Walker also paid tribute to Livi Sonetz, a West Softball player who was killed in a car accident on March 8, the first day of practice for Soccer this season. There was supposed to be a first practice for his team that day, but instead, he and the team joined a group of teachers and students to grieve her loss that day.

After that, while the team was still grieving, Walker said, the Wildcats faced Normal Community High School and lost. But Walker explained, based on what he had seen in his players that day, “I knew we were going to get better. We just needed to play these one game at a time.”

He said the girls “started to believe in themselves” following a victory over Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin. Getting a high seed in the opening round, he said, helped his team avoid facing one of a pair of powerful squads, University High and Mahomet-Seymour as they approached the opening round of the playoffs.

Senior midfielder Melanie Bautista was voted “Most Improved Player” by her teammates, Walker announced to the gathering. Walker also recognized the team captains – seniors Olivia Peters, Samantha Whelan, Marsaglia, junior Bekah Nielsen, and Bautista – for their efforts this season. The work and determination of the team made them “yearn to get better,” Walker said. “Thank you, ladies, for all you’ve done this season.”

Unit 5 Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker was present and passed along the congratulations of the Board to the team during the session.

Peters told the gathering she has been playing Soccer since she was five said getting to State “was a great way to retire” from the sport, and thanked her parents for their support. Marsaglia added, “This team was the best team for me, not just for Soccer, but for anything in my entire life.”

As they get older, other things will come along involving family, jobs, other activities waiting for them in the future. But for that moment Sunday, this is what mattered to those kids, and years from now, they can look back and know they added to Normal West sports history.

By Steve Robinson | June 2, 2018 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

BLOOMINGTON – O’Fallon High School head baseball coach Jason Portz spent the days leading up to the Illinois High School Association Class 4A Sectional championship at Jack Horenberger Field on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus telling his players a small number of runs scored would not be enough to beat Normal Community West, coached by his friend, Chris Hawkins.

He was right. Although they scored two runs in the bottom of the third inning to jump to a 2-0 lead, having an explosive 8-run fifth inning gave some distance between them and Normal West en route to a 9-0 blanking of the Wildcats to take the Sectional title.

After two scoreless innings, O’Fallon senior catcher Jeremy Reno reached first base on an error by Wildcats junior shortstop Jeremy Collinson to begin the bottom of the third inning. That was followed by leadoff batter and junior shortstop Josh Gibson being hit by a pitch from Wildcats senior starter McCade Brown. With two on, senior pitcher Brayden Arnold hit a double all the way to the center field wall, scoring Reno and Gibson, giving the Panthers a 2-0 edge.

There would be two more scoreless innings for both sides afterward, and Normal West (24-15) would go down in order in the top of the fifth. From there, O’Fallon (35-3-1) would add to their lead. Two walked batters and a single by Arnold loaded the bases for senior third baseman Hayden Juenger who was walked by Brown, increasing O’Fallon’s lead, 3-0. The Panthers would score five more times that inning while keeping the Wildcats at bay to achieve victory.

“With the arm they had out there,” Portz said in reference to Brown who will attend and play at Indiana next season, “If his command had been different and our kids don’t battle, and we continue to chase above our hands, we’d be in trouble.”

Portz said he told his players it would take more than two runs to beat a Normal West squad he knew would continue to fight through to the last out.

“We knew we were going to have to be about perfect to have a shot at beating them, and we weren’t,” Hawkins said afterward. “They were really good as advertised, number one in Illinois. We gave a lot of free bases and you just can’t do that with them.”

Arnold pitched seven innings striking out eight batters for the win. Brown pitched four plus innings striking four batters in the loss.