By Mike Monahan
Mattoon returns only two players from a team that hasn’t played for nearly two years.
Even the coach is new.
Jarod Kiger, an assistant to Jim Schmitz when the Green Wave won the Apollo title in 2019, never got a chance to manage his first season when all sports were canceled for COVID concerns last spring.
So it’s likely that this will be an unusual, unpredictable season.
The Green Wave lost a doubleheader in their season opener Saturday that featured several solid performances but also 11 errors. Mattoon had not played since a regional final loss on May 25, 2019. Ironically, the last Green Wave win was May 22, 2019 against Centennial in the regional semifinals, 6-2.
“As you start off with a young and inexperienced team,” Kiger said after Saturday’s game, “you’re going to have some mistakes and that’s the things we’re trying to work through.”
Mattoon features two solid pitchers in Meade Johnson and Austin Baker, who was 3-0 on the mound last season. Baker allowed only one earned run and four hits in five innings Saturday.
Johnson played in 20 games in 2019 and hit .200 (5-for-25), while Baker hit .167 as a sophomore in 14 games. Johnson also pitched and struck out 22 in 20 innings, while walking 11. Through 11 appearances his earned run average was 1.05.
Meade Johnson was a utility player as a sophomore and a pitcher, while Baker was a back-up first baseman,” said Kiger. “When the first baseman pitched he played first.”
Kiger has been pleased with the leadership of Johnson.
“Johnson is our No. 1 guy on the mound and is such a positive influence on the young kids,” said Kiger. “He is just a great leader. He helps the young kids out and even goes to some junior varsity practices to work on some infield stuff. I could be more pleased with senior leadership like that. I am excited to see what he can do this year as well as his future.”
Expect Johnson to be one of the top hitters.
“Johnson is a nice consistent batter,” said Kiger. “Baker will have more opportunities to bat and spray the ball around the infield. Coffey will play second base for me”
The team, which is young, includes only three other seniors — Andrew Coffey, Tanner Nichols and Gavin Gonzalez. Mattoon has five juniors and seven sophomores for a total of 17 on the varsity roster, seven of which are pitchers.
“The young guys will play key roles for us this season as they have to get experience at some point,” Kiger said. “These kids have played a lot of baseball and it will just be different uniforms for them now (summer baseball).”
Kiger, an assistant for the football team, has had to adapt practice times – running from football practices from 8-10 a.m. during spring break to baseball from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“You have to practice when you can and the kids have to be flexible,” he said. “I am in double-duty and a lot of coaches are doing the same thing. It is a unique position. I have been thankful for the kids being patient with me.”
Kiger said the team has decent speed, but called centerfielder Gonzalez one of the fastest players that he has ever coached.
“His ability to cover ground is great,” Kiger said. “He has gap to gap speed and he has got a nice solid approach at the bat. Coming out of the box opponents better be on their toes fast. Meade Johnson is that way also. They both have really good baseball instinct. That is something that makes you look faster. We have a nice mix of speed and power and we look to take advantage of all of those strengths.”
Only the first game of an Apollo Conference doubleheader counts in the standings this season.
“These guys are a relaxed bunch and have some fun when they are out there,” said Kiger. “They can be related when they play, but they also know how to crank it up to the next level. It makes it more fun as a coach to be around guys that can be both serious and relaxed. I am glad the seniors have an opportunity to play and I am looking forward to the season.”
The junior varsity is coached by Mattoon graduate Brett Poorman and Frank Luksander, a volunteer assistant.
Kiger said the Apollo Conference is as good as it gets as far as pitching.
“We have big-time pitchers in the conference,” said Kiger. “Effingham has two that have touched the 90s (mph) and Meade Johnson is right there at 90 also.”
Mattoon opens the Apollo Conference on May 1 when it hosts Mount Zion.
“I told the guys we play five games before our first conference game,” said Kiger. “We want to be hitting our stride when we play Mt. Zion in our first conference game. We want to get better each game. This is just an exciting time for the kids and coaches.”
16 Austin Baker P/1B
5 Andrew Coffey 2B/P
7 Gavin Gonzalez OF/P
1 Meade Johnson P/SS
10 Tanner Nichols Utility
2 Cooper Bergstrom C/2B
6 Logan MacDonald OF/P
14 Chandler Melton OF
3 Kaiden Rice Utility
12 Zachary Wetzel OF/P
13 Colton Comstock 1B
20 Jackson Helms P/3B
22 Kaden Junge 3B
11 Trenton Owens C/3B
15 Luke Perry SS/3B
8 Blaine Powers Utility
4 Jason Skocy Utility
Saturday-CHAMPAIGN CENTENNIAL, 11 a.m. (DH)
Tuesday-at Marshall, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday-CHAMPAIGN CENTRAL 4:30 p.m.
April 27-at Olney, 4:30 p.m.
May 1-MT. ZION*, 10 a.m. (DH)
May 3-at Effingham St. Anthony, 4: 30 p.m.
May 8-at Taylorville*, 11 a.m. (DH)
May 10-NEOGA, 4:30 p.m.;
May 11-at Mahomet-Seymour* (DH), 5 p.m.;
May 13-at Casey-Westfield, 4:30 p.m.;
May 15-EFFINGHAM*, 11 a.m. (DH);
May 17-at Stewardson-Strasburg vs. WSS, 4:30 p.m.;
May 19-at Robinson, 4:30 p.m.;
May 22-CHARLESTON*, 11 a.m. (DH);
May 25-TEUTOPOLIS*: 4:30 p.m. (DH);
May 29-at Lincoln, 11 a.m. (DH)
June 2-7 IHSA Class 3A regional tournament, TBA
*-Apollo Conference game (first contest counts as an Apollo game)