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Ironmen baseball off to 2-0 start, looking to improve on last season’s Regional title, winning record

2024 season preview
After an 8-2 season as a junior, Ethan Eberle will look to lead a veteran roster as the Iron hope to best last season’s record. Photo Courtesy: Mr. Jeff Christopherson

Ironmen baseball opened the 2024 season with a 2-0 start, aiming to improve on 2023’s success which culminated in a 25-10 record and the program’s first Regional title in over 15 years.
Last season, head coach Mr. Ryan Short said the Ironmen “got hot at the right time,” winning eight of 10 to end the year before losing 4-1 to Minooka in the Sectional Semifinals.
“Get better, get better, get better,” Short said, that’s how you want the season to progress.
The 2023 Regionals saw the Ironmen at their best as Ethan Eberle and Jacob O’Day pitched a pair of shutout performances.
Eberle again looks to be Community’s ace. He’ll need to replicate last season’s success if Community hopes to build off last year’s 25-win campaign, a challenge as O’Day, an eight-game winner, is now taking the field for Heartland Community College and Troy McLeese is playing for Rock Valley Junior College.
O’Day and McLeese were second and third in the Iron rotation last year, and the workhorses finished two-three in most of the team’s major pitching categories, including innings, earned run average and strikeouts.
The strengths of last season’s graduates–O’Day, McLeese, Chase Weise, Will Naour, Hudson Burrows and Tommy Felstead–Short said went beyond the stat sheet.
“All six,” Short said, “were high-energy guys, early to practice, late to leave. Just the kind of leaders that a team needs and [wants] on the field in big moments.”
And they were capable of making a big offensive impact.
Weise was second last season in RBIs with 19, and his 25 hits were good for a team-third. McLeese batted .282 and drove in 14. Those contributions earned Weise First-Team All-Conference recognition and a roster spot at Rock Valley Junior College.
With Eberle on the mound, rounding out a talented pitching rotation, and a new set of senior leaders, Community looks poised for another dominant season.
The Iron return eight pitchers, headlined by the Louisville commit, and six positional starters.
Eberle, a 6-foot-5 southpaw, finished last season with an 8-1 record, allowing six runs in 58 innings of work as he racked up 114 strikouts. O’Day was second in Ks with 66.
A key factor in Community’s 10-shutout season last year, Eberle notched both a no-hitter and a perfect game in his junior campaign.
In 19 years as the Ironmen’s head coach, Short said he’s never seen a talent quite like Eberle.
“He’s the first Power Five commit we’ve had since I’ve been the head coach,” Short said. “He’s one of the top arms in the state.”
He proved it last season and the accolades followed–Big 12 Conference Pitcher of the Year, First-team All-State in Class 4A, First-team All-Conference.

Eberle boasts a fastball that teeters near 90 miles per hour and sharp-breaking off-speed pitches that can carve batters up.

With 34 regular-season games on the schedule, pitching staff depth is a key to the team’s success.
“These days, a starter who goes five innings or more,” Short said, “probably is not going to pitch competitively in a game for a week.”
Last season, O’Day and McLeese combined to pitch 78 innings; this season, Brady Bengston, Kaileb Hackman and Parker Michaels will look to eat those innings.
The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Bengston will see an expanded role in the rotation after going 4-2 last season and throwing 29 innings.
Last season, Bengston was third on the team in strikeouts, retiring 39 batters.
Hackman, a Big 12 Honorable Mention, was fourth, striking out 26 in 14 innings in relief.
At backstop, Ryan Theile is confident in his battery-mates.
“I think we’re going to do better than last year,” Theile said.
Bengston, Hackman, Michaels will all “step up,” Theile said, and “take the charge.”

Bengston boasts a fastball in the mid-80s and a curveball and slider that can cause batters trouble.

Michaels, amid a roster of flamethrowers, Short said, provides a much-needed “change of pace.”
“Eberle throws hard, Brady throws hard, Kaileb throws hard, [Jake] Branch throws hard,” the coach said.
Michaels’ strength isn’t his velocity but how he “mixes and matches,” Short said, “keeps people off balance, and pounds the strike zone.”
Juniors Jonah Roper and Luke Klunke are looking to pound the strike zone this season.
Short said the duo “are going to help [the Iron] a lot on the mound this season.”
Community’s depth extends beyond the pitching staff.
“I think we’ve got 12 or more guys right now who I’m completely comfortable using in a high-leverage varsity baseball situation,” Short said. “And that’s unheard of.”
The 18 returning varsity players, coupled with the team’s young talent, have Short playing with lineups at the plate and on the field, trying to find the right fit in the right spots.
But some things, like the top of the batting order, need no tweaking.
That’s where you’ll see the bats of Hackman, Second-Team All-Conference players Theile and Riley Hendren and All-Conference Honorable Mention Owen Cavanaugh.
Hackman was Community’s offensive anchor in 2023, leading the Iron in hits (35), RBI (23), average (.402) and on-base and slugging percentage (1.132).

What goes through the Augustan commit’s head when he approaches each at bat?
It’s “the mindset that you’re better than the pitcher,” the senior said. That “you’re going to get a hit. That’s going to be what you’re thinking.”

The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder doesn’t just hit for average; the senior can hit for power, blasting four of Community’s 10 home runs last season.
Hackman attributes those stats to his attitude on the plate.

The opposition has noted Hackman’s confidence, walking him a team-leading 16 times last spring.
Theile, also a future Augustana Viking, finished last season tied for second in hits (29) and third in three hitting categories: RBI (19), average (.330) and OPS (.892).
But the catcher thinks he can improve on his performance this year.
“I want to be more consistent,” Theile said, “last year I was kind of up and down.”
He is off to a good start, hitting .600 with five RBI and homerun after two games.
Cavanaugh and Hendren each tallied 29 hits last season, demonstrating consistency at the plate.
Shortstop Cavanaugh proved a reliable bat, finishing his junior season with 17 RBIs with 17 and drawing 12 walks.
Hendren, Short said, is a “table setter,” whose talent goes beyond just his ability to get on base, but swipe them.
The outfielder was flawless on the base paths last season, recording 15 steals in as many tries.

Early in the season, Brady Burkhart and Lucas Drengwitz are looking to stand out amidst a talent-heavy roster.
Last season, Short said, Drengwitz “played his way into being [a] really important fourth outfielder.”
The senior is picking up where he left off, batting .500 with a single, a double and an RBI in his four plate appearances in 2024.
The junior Burkhart has two singles in four at-bats and drove in one.
Junior Kyle Beaty looks to play a more significant role in the offense in 2024; last season, in 60 at-bats, Beaty posted a .383 batting average and .919 on-base percentage, both good for second on the team and a team-leading .519 on-base percentage.
The mid-lineup competition is what can help propel the Ironmen to a Big 12 title.
“We would really like to win the Big 12 conference,” Short said. “Champaign Central’s the team to beat right now.”
Last season, Community took second in the conference, going 10-2.
While they defeated Central 4-2, the Iron lost one-run contests to Centennial and Peoria Notre Dame.
“Champaign Central is at the top of that mountain,” Short said, “so we have to try to push them off and not get pushed off by everybody else.”
While the Iron are eyeing April 5’s home matchup against the Maroons, Theile said it is just one game circled on the calendar.
“U-High is a big one,” Theile said. “We’ve lost the past couple of years and I think we have a good chance of beating them this year.”
Come May 1, the Iron will look to avenge last spring’s 10-2 defeat at the hands of the Pioneers and end a losing streak that dates back to 2018.
The Ironmen look to improve to 4-0 this weekend when they face the Moline Maroons and Belleville East in a double-header at Belleville.

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About the Contributors
Ben Kerber
Ben Kerber, Staff Writer
Ben Kerber is a senior at Normal Community High School and a member of the Ironmen football team. He is a staff writer in his first year working with the Inkspot. My Favorite Film is “Cars.” The farthest I've been from home is Hawaii. On the weekend I hang out with friends. I'd really like to meet Anthony Rizzo.    
Terrion Darnell
Terrion Darnell, Staff Writer
Terrion Darnell is a senior at Normal Community High School, he is a member of the varsity basketball and track team. Terrion is a staff reporter for the Inkspot with this being his first year as a staff writer.   I am most comfortable when I am with my friends or family. On the weekend I hang out with friends and make music. I'd really like to meet Jayson Tatum. A random fact about me is that I am adopted.
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