SOUTH BEND — Most high school athletics teams have some unsung stars on the roster. Even South Bend Saint Joseph baseball.
Guys like Jayce Lee and Zach Stawski got the headlines during the Indians’ fifth consecutive sectional title run because of their walk-off homers and grand slams. But it is a trio of freshman — Joe Washburn, Brody Zielinski and Owen Balint — that Saint Joe coach John Smolinski said has raised his squad to the next level.
“Their growth has been huge for us,” Smolinski said at Tuesday’s team practice. “Now they are sophomores pretty much. They have gotten so much experience under their belt now and I don’t think they feel the pressure anymore.”
Washburn, Zielinski and Balint all played big roles in Saint Joe’s two sectional wins this weekend over Mishawaka Marian (8-7) and New Prairie (18-4).
More:South Bend Saint Joseph wins another sectional, now looks ahead to regional
Washburn, Saint Joe’s starting shortstop and leadoff hitter since the middle of the season, collected four hits and scored five runs between the two games.
Zielinski, the starting third basemen, added two hits, too and also made a couple of diving plays which saved some runs against the Cougars.
Balint, the starting catcher, added two hits and three RBI batting in the middle of Saint Joe’s lineup.
“It was a great experience, not just for me, but the other two freshmen,” Balint said. “Playing in that type of atmosphere will get us ready for when we are juniors and seniors.”
Forget about waiting that long. Their moment is right now as Smolinski has entrusted them to help the Indians win their first regional title since 2017 when they head to Griffith on Saturday to play No. 1 Andrean (12 pm ET).
That could be a lot of pressure. But Smolinski believes they can handle it because he knows better than anyone how to handle those expectations.
Smolinski was once a freshman on the Saint Joe varsity roster and had to earn his stripes. Back then not many freshman had that opportunity under former head coach John Gumpf. Smolinski had a bit of a change in philosophy. The best players will play, no matter their age level.
Washburn, Zielinski and Balint still had to earn it. And it didn’t take long to see why Smolinski continued to put them in his lineup.
Washburn has hit .390 this year with 23 hits and three RBI. Zielinski, who has also been used as a pitcher is at .267 with eight hits and six RBI. Balint is at .368 with 21 hits and 15 RBI.
“We push each other to keep getting better,” Washburn said. “It shows we have really improved.”
That kind of production also earns some trust from just about everyone.
“Over time they see how hard they work in practice. They might get one opportunity a game, but if they perform they are going to stay in the game,” Smolinski said. “Our upperclassmen really look at those underclassmen as guys who are going to be contributors.”
Just as it was for Smolinski during his playing days, there were expectations set for this year’s freshmen to understand the Saint Joe way. One of those was just completed last weekend helping win another sectional title.
“You don’t want to be the first to go five years without winning a sectional championship,” Zielinski said. “You got to come out with your A-game, be ready for everything that is going to happen. You are going to take your bumps in games but you have to counterpunch, come back and keep going.”
The Indians are now looking for more. With Washburn, Zielinski and Balint in the lineup, Saint Joe appears set up to not only compete for the rest of this year, but also has the foundation set for years to come.
“I think it shows we will be a really good team coming up,” Washburn said. “We will be state contenders in a couple years.”
Adams relying on experience for another regional run
South Bend Adams is as relaxed as anyone this week because many of its players have been here before.
For the second straight year the Eagles are competing in a regional. Last season, Adams won its regional semifinal game over Elkhart before falling 9-2 in the regional championship. On Saturday the Eagles get Penn in the morning semifinal with the winner playing Crown Point or Lake Central in Saturday night’s championship.
“We have all played with a bunch of these kids and know them pretty well,” said Northern Indiana Conference MVP Drew Stultz about Saturday’s semifinal. “We know what we are getting ourselves into and I have a strong belief that we can win this game.”
‘It’s amazing.’:South Bend Adams upsets No. 7 LaPorte for second straight 4A sectional title
Penn, who hadn’t won a sectional since 2018 before Monday’s win over Northridge doesn’t have the same experience on this playoff stage as its counterpart. Adams has 10 seniors who were on last year’s regional team.
“It’s a really big impact for us,” Trey Fonseca said. “It helps us with our younger guys coming up too, so they don’t feel that pressure.”
On Monday, Adams felt all the pressure trailing 2-0 through three innings. Without any panic, it scored the final five runs of the game.
“We knew how to stay relaxed, calm and still make the easy play,” Stultz said. “Not overthink things. The championship game was one of our best this season hitting-wise, pitching-wise, fielding-wise. We were throwing strikes and getting the easy out.”
After a big win like that, it is tough to not be excited about the possibilities through the rest of the postseason. Some of Adams’ players think looking ahead may have nipped them during last year’s loss to Munster.
So this year, the Eagles plan to only control what they can.
“Just game-by-game,” senior Nate Bolin said. “You got this game ahead of you, you can’t think about what state is going to look like.”
Penn’s Zachary Hoskins cherishing final playoff run
Penn baseball coach Greg Dikos referred to senior centerfielder Zachary Hoskins as the team’s sparkplug. As Hoskins goes, so do the Kingsmen.
There is no better example of that then when Hoskins took an extra bag on a sacrifice fly, scoring from second in a crucial spot during Penn’s 7-5 sectional championship win over Northridge.
Long-time coming:Penn goes out and takes 4A sectional, advances to LaPorte regional
“The amount of work I put in to playing the game has just helped me to be that sparkplug I need to be,” Hoskins said.
To even be in that position, helping Penn win its first sectional title since 2018 and into Saturday’s LaPorte regional semifinal against South Bend Adams, took a herculean effort. Back in November, Hoskins had surgery on his knee and shoulder after football injuries and thought his high school baseball career was over.
“It was a struggle to get back,” he said. “I didn’t know when exactly I was going to be back. They told me six months to a year, but I made it back in about four months.”
Since then, Hoskins has been everything Penn needed at the top of its batting order. Named as an All-NIC outfielder, Hoskins has batted .410 this year with 36 RBI.
Hoskins said he’s always had a fiery side to his game. That means amping up the team in the dugout, or causing some chaos on the base paths, as he did against the Raiders.
Hoskins, who said he isn’t at 100% yet, still has some bad days where he has to play through pain or take a day off practice. But at this point in the season, no injury is going to make him miss his final high school playoff run.
“A lot of people didn’t think I was going to be back at all this season,” Hoskins said. “Just to prove people wrong, work back as fast as I did, it just means a lot to be back on this field. That’s the main thing that drives me.”
Glenn finally gets over sectional hurdle
Glenn didn’t need any extra motivation during its 9-1 sectional final win over Hanover Central on Monday. But its seniors still wanted to make amends for last year.
The Falcons’ 2021 season ended at the hands of the Wildcats in the sectional finals. Glenn got its rematch and was determined to not fall short again.
“We have a lot of returning people back from last year and we knew what it felt like to lose to them,” senior infielder Silas Kaser said. “There was definitely motivation, texts to group chats and keep us locked in, which has helped a lot.”
Of Glenn’s nine RBI, four came from players (Kaser, Nathan Marshman with two and Colin Stephens) who were part of last year’s loss.
Kaser believes that experience was something that helped the Falcons turn the tables.
“Hanover had a lot of seniors last year, so they were a bit younger this year and it helped us having a lot of seniors,” he said.
Glenn will open its Saturday slate against Western in the Griffith regional. If they win, the Falcons will play No. 1 Andrean or South Bend Saint Joseph in the 8 pm championship game.
“It’s definitely one of the hardest, if not the hardest regional around,” Kaser said. “Everyone knows that and it will definitely give us motivation.”
In terms of regional experience the Falcons are the youngsters of this four-team group. Andrean has nine sectional titles since 2010. Saint Joe has won five in a row. And Western was most recently in a regional in 2019.
For Glenn, this is its first trip since 2017. So as much varsity experience as the Falcons have on their roster none of those players have ever played on this stage.
Coach John Nadolny said he doesn’t know how his guys will react to it on Saturday, but he warned them to expect to see some high-quality play from every team in the field.
“You are going to get teams’ No. 1 or No. 2 (pitcher),” Kaser said. “That is just how it is. We have grown accustomed to that. We have seen a lot of good teams’ good pitchers.”
Glenn is bringing some good pitchers, too. Its three main arms, Stephens, Brycen Hannah and Joe Crapliwy all have ERAs under 2.00, with Chrapliwy holding a team-best 0.94 ERA in 44 2/3 innings.
“I like our group defensively, offensively and pitching,” Nadolny said. “I think our enthusiasm and fire is there and I think we are a pretty darn good ball club. It is going to be one heck of a regional. I have a feeling the state champion is coming out of this regional.”
Glenn is just happy its one of those four teams that has a shot.