Mattoon baseball coach Jarod Kiger can finally take a deep breath.
It has nothing to do with the nicer weather. It’s that the team was finally able to practice on an outside field this week.
As the renovation projects at Mattoon High continue, Kiger said his team should be able to play on campus at the new field by mid-April. Until them, the Green Wave will play their home games at Grimes Field. Rain and cold weather, though, have prevented the team from hitting the field so it’s been gym floors for Mattoon since the start of the season.
“We have been making it work the best that we can,” said Kiger.
2021 TEAM RECORD: 15-7.
Mattoon lost four productive starters.
Gone from last year – unanimous All-Apollo pitcher Meade Johnson, now playing at Heartland Community College. Johnson, who outpitched No. 1 Illinois prospect Ben Hess last year, led the team in wins, strikeouts, batting average (.397), runs scored, doubles and RBIs.
The Green Wave also lost First-Team All-Apollo first baseman Austin Baker, who hit . 344 and drove in 17 runs, along with a speedy starting centerfield in Gavin Gonzalez (.331, 19 runs), and reserve Drew Coffey (.297, 13 RBIs).
“Losing guys like Austin at first, who had a great bat, Gavin, who could track down anything, and Meade and Drew, always hurts,” said Kiger. “Those guys put up a lot of innings last year. We approached last year with the mentality that we moved some guys around to get them live reps because only one game counted for conference standings. We had a lot of guys get playing time between those games and non-conference games, so we have a ton of experiencing coming back.”
KEY PLAYERS: The Green Wave return First-Team All-Apollo designated hitter Zach Wetzel (.362, 14 runs), who could also see playing time at first base. Cooper Bergstrom (.346, 11 runs) is set to catch for his third varsity season. Kiger said that there are “several guys battling” for spots around the infield, such as Kaiden Rice (.333, 11 runs), who played multiple positions last year. Luke Perry could get the nod at shortstop, a position where he played when Johnson was pitching.
“Kaiden played a ton last year and played a lot at third,” said Kiger. “Luke is as smooth as they come. It’s just a matter of some guys getting time in. We have three days left until our first game. We need to get more time to see where they are, but we have been having some great battles at practice. They are also great contact hitters, too. I think we have at least seven guys who can hit around .340.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: The Green Wave will need to figure out the outfield with only one returning starter. Logan MacDonald is the team’s only starting pitcher to return. Jason Skocy (.289, 10 runs, 8 RBIs) could contend for a spot as well. MacDonald and Jackson Helms are currently poised as the team’s top two pitchers in the lineup. Among question marks, the outfield and the pitching staff remain near the top, but Kiger isn’t worried.
“We have some great senior leadership,” said Kiger. “Our top two pitchers are pretty tough guys. Both pitched on and off last season. Logan took more of the innings last year in the second conference game. Jack was mainly a midweek guy and worked some non-conference games. They are both extremely competitive.”
Being the defending champions, Kiger said it is something the team has talked about.
“The big thing we have is that we have a ton of experience coming back,” said Kiger. “We graduated four pretty good players that contributed a lot, but we approached last year with it being the first year out of COVID to get as many guys we could in that second conference game. We brought back a lot of guys that had live game at-bats, live reps, and were on the field. I think we are going to see a lot of positives come from that.”
As the Green Wave navigates the beginning of the season without a home field, Kiger is excited for the future possibility of playing on their new field that will have turf. All in all, he is hopeful that the team will be competitive and just as loud from the sidelines as they were last year.
“When we talk about goals, I know it is cliche, but I want to see us improve every game we play,” said Kiger. “We have some early non-conference games to prepare us for the conference. I hope that we are a good team, but better teammates for one. That was something that helped us win in my opinion. The camaraderie we had was amazing. They didn’t care about who got the hits or the numbers, they just cheered for each other. I love seeing that as a coach. Defending Apollo is something we have talked about, but to do it, it’s going to come down to pitching and staying healthy.”
KEY GAMES: Their first projected home game, which will likely be at Grimes Field, will be on April 5 against St. Anthony. Before that, the team opens up Apollo Conference play on the road at Charleston High School.
Seniors: Cooper Bergstrom, Jackson Spurgeon, Logan MacDonald, Zach Wetzel, Chandler Melton, Kaiden Rice
Juniors: Jackson Helms, Jason Skocy, Cayden Knierim, Trenton Owens, Blaine Powers, Colton Comstock, Luke Perry, Christian Larson, Kaden Junge.