One of the highlights for the Fenwick High School baseball team each spring is the annual trip to Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida. The Friars face teams from around the country at superb baseball facilities while building team chemistry.
After last year's visit, the remainder of the 2016 season could best be described as a roller coaster ride.
After splitting six games at Disney, Fenwick returned home to a 10-game losing streak. The skid was the worst during head coach Dave Hogan's 36-year tenure at Fenwick.
"It's like we lost the ability to play baseball because we didn't want to make mistakes," Hogan said. "And bad baseball can be contagious. There was no flow."
Hogan knew the Friars needed a change.
So he called up five sophomores to the varsity and players became more accountable for themselves and each other.
After a 6-13 start, Fenwick won 14 of its final 21 games to finish 20-20. Reflective of their entire season, their record was deceptive, considering that the Friars advanced all the way to the Class 3A supersectionals (losing to St. Viator 12-4 in that Elite 8 matchup).
As topsy-turvy as the season was in 2016, the outlook is decidedly brighter this spring.
The roster is stacked and Hogan knows it.
"I really like our team," he said. "We have essentially our starting lineup back and quality depth at every position. Our starting pitching should be good.
"The last time I called up a bunch of sophomores like last season was about 25 years ago. It's pretty rare, but it worked out well the times I have done it. I think we can really make some noise this season."
Fenwick will be moving back up to Class 4A, but having a core of returning players should smooth the transition.
Senior center-fielder Casey O'Laughlin anchors the middle of the lineup with a potent bat. The Northwestern recruit is a natural athlete who patrols the middle of the outfield. He will be flanked by a pair of fellow seniors, left-fielder Sherman Martin and right-fielder Harrison Hayes. The latter also excels as a designated hitter. Kyle Gruszka, Zack Pacer, Tommy Hogan and Sam Kure provide depth in the outfield.
The infield is arguably even better with the quartet of senior third baseman Mike Fiorito, senior shortstop Anthony Cavalieri, junior second baseman Alex Pup and junior first baseman Jack Grace.
Junior Mike Cerceo is the next in a line of notable Fenwick catchers, backed up by capable senior Ethan Gerstner.
Cavalieri (Lewis University), Pup (Air Force Academy) and senior pitcher Mike Stupinksi (Georgetown University) will play college baseball next season. Grace and Cerceo are also drawing recruiting interest.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Stupinski leads the pitching staff along with hard-throwing righty Justin Sosa. Juniors Charlie Wood, Joe Runnells and Ken Slepicka round out a deep rotation. For late-game situations, the Friars welcome back 6-1, 235-pound senior reliever Marty Stein, who also excelled on the Fenwick state semifinal football squad.
Fenwick will visit Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, March 19-24.
"Disney really does everything first class," Hogan said. "It's the Atlanta Braves' complex and the facilities and fields are in such great shape.
"Our players get to play a lot of baseball, but the value of the trip also comes from the team bonding that takes place. These guys know each other well and were friends before the Disney trip, but it's always different when they come back."
After returning from Florida, the Friars will face another seasonal tradition by taking on Chicago Catholic League powerhouse programs like Mt. Carmel, St. Laurence, Providence, Brother Rice and St. Rita.
From there, the goal will be to win the CCL White Division.
"St. Ignatius won the White last year," Hogan said. "We definitely should be a contender with a good chance of winning it this season."