The Hoopeston Area Middle School Cornjerkers baseball team took on St. Joseph-Ogden in the sectional finals Saturday in St. Joseph.
The Cornjerkers came into the game with a record of 18-2, including a regional championship win, but were unable to add another win to their record.
The Cornjerkers fell to SJO 7-0.
Despite coming up short in their quest for a chance at the state championship, this was another successful season for the Cornjerkers.
The Chronicle spoke with Coach Rick Harbacek about the season and the team’s future.
Harbacek said Hoopeston Area had a strong team with a deep roster this season.
“There’s a lot of ability in the program right now,” he said. “I’ve got 14 who play travel baseball during the offseason so that gives has a benefit going into the season.”
Harbacek said the team also benefitted from veteran players returning from last season who had great seasons for the team. These include captains Cole Miller and Zach Huchel as well as Brayden Walder, Keenon Anderson, Eli Hasting and Parker Watson, all of whom started for Harbacek this season.
He said Huchel pitched a two-hit shut-out for the Cornjerkers during their regional championship win over Bismarck-Henning and Brayden Walder knocked in the winning hit during the game. He said Huchel was the team’s number one pitcher and stepped at the plate as well by hitting over .400 and had 30 RBI.
Harbacek praised Walder’s performance at shortstop and as lead-off hitter for the team. He said Walder batted over .400 this year. Walder led the teams in wins as a pitcher, going 5-1,
Harbacek also praised Hoopeston Area’s starting catcher Cole Miller and hit .581 and led the team in RBI with 35.
Some of the underclassmen who stood out this year on the team include Nick Cardenas, who went 4-0 pitching and hit .375 playing third base as well as at shortstop and second; Felix Cantu, who went 4-0 as a pitcher; Mason Swartz led the team in stolen bases with 15 since he courtesy ran often and went 2-0 pitching.
“There a lot of depth in the program,” Harbacek said. “And just a really hard-working group of kids.”
Harbacek said they started offseason workouts during the summer and had a lot of players present working on their hitting and lifting abilities. He said he also makes the weight room and practice areas available before school as well.
“And that had between 10-14 guys from my roster here every morning working out from 6:30-7:40 a.m. getting better and having the normal game schedule going on with it,” he said. “I was really blessed with a fun group to coach.”
Harbacek said his players are quality student-athletes who work hard in the classroom and represent what being a student athlete is all about.
Asked if there were any specific areas of play he worked with his players on coming into this season, Harbacek said the team was solid in all area.
“We were a solid baseball team in all areas,” he said. “Defensively, we only had 27 errors in 21 games. Pitching-wise, our ERA was about 1.8 as a team and our team batting average was .359.”
Harbacek credits the amount of experience many of his players had as being part of the reason for their success.
“We had a lot of guys who were experienced from playing travel who had played for me for three years, so it was just the right mix of all those ingridients coming together for a baseball team that was very successful,” he said.
Harbacek also expressed his appreciation for the support the team received from Middle School Principal Michael Blacketer, Athletic Director Nathan Burkowski and Superintendent Robert Richardson.
The Cornjerkers didn’t have access to their home field this season due to the ongoing efforts to restore the field, so they used the McFerren Park Pony Field for their home games.
Harbacek said the City of Hoopeston was nice to let them utilize the field this year to practice and play games.
He said the team did have to adjust to the new set-up, but they worked through them.
“It’s just working through things and, like anything in sports, you overcome the situation you’re in and don’t use it as an excuse and just work hard to get things going in the right direction,” Harbacek. “It worked out well. My players bought into the program. Our motto was ‘Refuse to Lose’ and they bought into that and worked extremely hard this season.”
Looking to the future, Harbacek feels that his team can repeat the success it saw this year next year.
While they will be losing six starters, he said they are bringing back several of their top players.
Harbacek said they’ve got quality players ready to move to the seventh and eighth positions next year and they had a strong sixth grade class this year with one sixth grader, Raydon Montez, who hit over .300, starting at first for the entire season.
“There’s a lot of quality pieces there moving forward,” he said. “And, as the program continues to develop, there’s depth coming up from the fifth grade who are playing travel also. So, I don’t think this is going to be a one-year situation.”
Harbacek said his first year with the junior high program the team was under .500, while in the second year they got a three-seed, last year they got a two-seed and their year they got a one-seed.
“So the program direction is going in the right direction as we’re building, training student-athletes that are going to be successful for here and then at the high school level since I’m also the head coach for the varsity program also,” he said. “It was just a great season and I’m very thankful for the efforts that all parts of the equation put into the program this year: the support of the parents, the support of the school community and the administration and of course my players buying in and I’m also blessed with an excellent coaching staff that works extremely hard for me and doing whatever it takes for us to be successful.”