Catching on at Kaskaskia: Kaskaskia College finally makes its way out of Northern District
Getting out of the Northern District lately has meant one thing: Beat Iowa Western.
For Kaskaskia (Ill.) College, though, it meant something else: Beat the team that beat Iowa Western.
And the Blue Devils did that, ironically, beating the team they had trouble with during the regular season, Wabash Valley (Ill.) College.
“We lost two of three to Wabash Valley, who we beat (in the district title game) and I looked at the guys and told them, ‘That’s one of the better teams in our district and our region. We competed with them,’ ‘’ Kaskaskia coach Mitch Koester said.
“We didn’t do the little things to win. That weekend, right there I told our guys if we concentrate a little harder, swing at better pitches, make better pitches, we can beat these guys. We can beat anybody.”
That was early April.
From that point on, the Blue Devils concentrated a little harder. They swung at better pitches. They made better pitches.
And they won the Northern District title 16-6 over Wabash, which eliminated defending JUCO World Series champion Iowa Western twice during the tournament.
They’ve won 14 games in a row and 20 of 21 heading into the JUCO World Series.
“Halfway through the year I told our guys, ‘Let’s get this turned around and start winning ballgames.’ They showed up in the playoffs. It’s pretty amazing to see what we’ve done.”
Kaskaskia (39-10) qualified for JUCO for the first time in school history.
Iowa Western won every Northern District from 2007 until this season, and before that, Indian Hills (Iowa) was the team to beat. The Northern District shifted to Illinois this season, and Koester is ready to see what his young squad can do.
“We’ve got 20 freshmen,” he said. “We knew we were going to take our lumps a little early. We were talented, though. I knew we had some talent but I didn’t know how much.
“Halfway through the year we were starting to beat some quality teams and got our confidence going and it continued through the playoffs.”
The Blue Devils have done it with some solid pitching and timely hitting.
Three Kaskaskia pitchers are undefeated entering the national tournament, led by Nick Gardewine, who’s 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA. Joey Coonrod is 8-0 with a 2.61 ERA and Steven Reynolds is 7-0 with a 3.73 ERA.
“We know they’re going to keep us in ballgames,” Koester said. “We get some timely hits and they put up zeros and go deep into ballgames and then we’ll turn it over to the bullpen.
“We’ve got strikeout guys; our pitching coach stresses strike one, stay in the zone with every pitch, work ahead in the count and be aggressive with your pitches. Our guys have definitely bought into it and have been really successful all year.”
In the district title game, Wabash Valley took a 3-0 lead, but the Blue Devils’ hitters got going. They scored four runs in the third inning to take a 4-3 lead, and then the pitchers “threw up a zero right after that,” Koester said. “We put up seven in the fourth and coasted on in from there.
“We definitely made some things happen. We hit and run quite a bit and got some two-out base hits. Our starting pitching was solid other than the first couple of innings, put up four or five zeroes on the scoreboard.”
It’s a recipe he hopes will carry them through this week and help the young players get over their first-time nerves.
Koester planned to talk to several coaches who have been to JUCO and get a feel for the atmosphere, and go down the hall to talk to Shane Larson, who guided the Blue Devils’ women’s basketball team to the national tournament this year.
“He’s helped me these last couple of days prepare a little bit ahead of time,” Koester said of Larson, who is also the athletic director. “We’ll get a chance to talk to the guys and let them know what all takes place, what we need to do with the team when we get out there and on the way out.”
Kaskaskia is hitting .351 as a team, hitting gaps (93 doubles) and moving runners (53 sacrifices, 27 sac flies). The Blue Devils have hit only 17 home runs, with Chase Fieldhouse hitting seven. Fieldhouse is hitting .340 — all of the regulars are hitting over .300.
The district title game at Kaskaskia drew a good crowd, Koester said, but he knows it’s nowhere near the numbers the Blue Devils will play in front of in Grand Junction.
“They knew this team had the chance to do something special,” he said. “I told the guys before the game, ‘Relax, play your game and good things will happen.’ After that last out, it was a dog pile in the middle of the infield. It was something special.”