For a few years, hitting has been a well-documented issue for varsity-level Monticello baseball teams.
It continued through this school year. A season with high expectations was derailed by an inability to score runs consistently or in bunches.
This summer, suddenly, the hitting drought has been broken. Monticello got the offense going early in the season, and in curing the drought has found out that when it rains, it really does pour. The confidence bred from the early season offense has carried over into career seasons for more than a few Monticello baseball players, and the hot bats led the team through league playoffs this past weekend and into districts.
Monticello, who features seven starters batting near or over .300, scored 24 runs in three games to advance out of the league playoffs that they were hosting.
The team entered the playoffs as a three seed needing a top-two finish to advance, and their new offensive prowess combined with their pitching depth had them confident they could do just that.
In game one, Monticello took down second-seeded Annandale 7-5 behind a solid performance on the mound from ace Jake Frederick.
Frederick went eight innings, allowing three runs, only one earned, to pick up the win in the opening round game. Frederick did allow 14 base runners, but was able to work himself out of jams and minimize the damage to help keep Monticello from ever trailing.
After Monticello got one run in the top of the first, Annandale answered back in the bottom.
But Annandale was held scoreless from there till the eighth, while Monticello scored in the four of the middle innings, highlighted by a three-run fifth.
Monticello had seven hits on the game, lead by Jakob Kounkel who had two hits to go with two runs scored and two RBIs. For Kounkel, it was hardly more than an average game in what has become an outstanding summer season for him.
“Anytime [he] is at the plate, you expect that he’s going to get a hit,” said Coach Cole Deibele.
Annandale did put a scare into the local team with two runs off of reliever Tyler Streich in the ninth, but Streich eventually closed the door and sent Monti to the second round.
In that game, Monticello faced off with top-seeded Delano, for a chance at the league’s top seed in the state tournament.
Instead, Monticello came up on the short end, losing 9-4 in a game that was closer than the score indicated.
“It was 5-4 in the eighth and we had a chance to go up,” said Deibele. “We didn’t get it done.”
But, Deibele was still very happy with the way his team played against a team he considers the best in their league.
Kounkel gave Monticello seven very good innings on the mound, before running out of gas in the eighth, and Monticello scrapped at the plate to pick up runs against one of the top pitchers in the league.
At the plate, Sam Taufen picked up three of Monticello’s seven hits, while Ryan Michaelis added two. Kounkel picked up another hit, a double, to drive in three of Monticello’s runs.
But with the loss, Monticello was forced into a win-or-go-home game with a Buffalo team that was seeded below them (fourth) but had beat them earlier this year.
Still, they believed they were in the driver’s seat. Deibele says Monticello entered the game both with confidence at the plate, and a fresher pitching staff, two keys since it was each team’s third game in two days.
He was proven right on both counts.
Spencer Host threw six-plus innings for Monticello to pick up the win, and the home team continued to score runs both consistently and in bunches as they pulled away for a 13-3 win in seven innings.
“I thought Spencer did a real nice job of keeping them off-balance and making sure they didn’t get a big inning,” said Deibele.
Host helped himself by battling out of numerous jams, including inducing a swinging strikeout to get out of a bases loaded situation in the fourth.
He allowed 13 base runners in just six and a third innings, but limited the damage by striking out a whopping ten Buffalo batters.
Luke Hanson came on in the seventh to record the final two outs and preserve the ten-run lead that ends the game after seven innings.
At the plate, Monticello was as good as ever, racking up 16 hits in just six innings of offense.
Leading the way was Kounkel and Zach Johnson, who each recorded three hits, while Michael Fisette, Jake Schmitz and Taufen all had two hits.
For Deibele, it’s been fun, if a bit perplexing to watch his team become one big hitting machine.
“We had a disappointing season hitting wise in high school,” said Deibele. “The same guys now that were hitting .220 are hitting over .400. I don’t know what it is. But they just seem to come and hit the ball well.”
On a team full of hot hitters, Taufen (hitting .404) has stood right by Kounkel (.414) as one of the hottest all season.
“Sam [Taufen] is absolutely killing the ball right now,” said Deibele.
Other leaders include Schmitz and Fisette, who are hitting .377 and .364 respectively. Kounkel is also leading the team in RBI (22), and doubles (9) while Taufen leads in stolen bases (11) and Schmitz leads in runs scored (18).
Monticello, 11-4 on the year, will now head to districts both confident and excited.
“Our guys know how fun it was to be in district play [last year] and to see some of the top players in the state,” said Deibele. “They’re excited to go back this year.”
Districts begin this Thursday in Bloomington. To many, Monticello won’t be a favorite. But with a deep and talented pitching staff to go with scorching hot bats, Deibele feels good about his team’s chances.
“I have a lot of confidence going in,” said Deibele. “We’re going to be one of the smaller schools down there competing. But we expect to play well, and we’re going to go down there expecting to win.”