Bringin' the heat in the cold: Wheeler's Stills fans 13 in season-opening victory
UNION MILLS -- Sub-40 temperatures and snow flurries greeted Jeff Enright and Zach Coulter for their first games as coaches at their respective schools a year later that scheduled.
Suffice it to say, the chill wasn't quite as biting for Enright after Wheeler whipped South Central 9-1 in Wednesday's season-opener behind Rex Stills' 13 strikeouts.
"It's a very long time coming," said Enright, who came to Wheeler from Calumet after the 2019 season. "There were definitely some stomach flutters. I was dreading any call or email from their A.D. I was wanting to play this game no matter what. I actually had our grounds crew line the field just in case. It's weird because I felt like I've coached the guys, I've known the guys for so long, and it was the first time I've actually filled out a lineup card for these guys."
The wait hasn't been quite as long for Stills, a Purdue Fort Wayne recruit who played travel ball with the Morris Chiefs in the summer, though it was his first outing as a Bearcat since he was a sophomore.
"It was a blast," Stills said. "It was nice, the first time for the last time. I was staying warm in the dugout, for the most part. Hopefully, we'll just keep winning, make it down to state, (get) as far as we can."
Stills allowed an unearned run in the third after Aaron Hogan's infield hit in the third. His own pickoff throwing error and two ground outs got the Satellites on the board, but S.C. never threatened again. It managed only one other hit, on a Brandin Young bunt in the sixth, and he was promptly caught stealing. Stills walked just one, recording 13 of the last 18 outs on Ks.
"The mound is pretty good. There's no holes, nothing," said Stills, who fanned 15 at S.C. two years ago. "My curve ball was working good. The ball was slippery, but I was getting on top of it good. That was probably the pitch that kept me through it even though I didn't have all the 'velo' there."
Even with Stills' dominance, Enright thinks he can be better.
"He can throw that deuce better. He was hanging it up there a little bit," Enright said. "He makes coaching very easy when he's dealing. He's always pumping the strike zone. He can change speeds very well. Physically, he's got the tools; mentally, as well. The ball hasn't even gotten to the catcher's mitt and he'll actually apologize. You can hear it. He'll go, my bad. He's a team first guy. He doesn't big time anybody. He's the first guy carrying the equipment. He's a great kid, a good mentor, too."
Wheeler gave Stills four quick runs aided
by two walks and two SC errors in the first.
"We started off really hot," Stills said. "That makes me set in comfortably."
The early hole made the task all the more challenging for the Satellites.
"The game got out of control really from the first play of the game. That set the tone," Satellites coach Zach Coulter said. "Giving up four in the first inning with a pitcher like that, you're not going to find yourself in the win column very many times. It's just hard when it's 35 degrees and you're facing a guy who was throwing 90. (Stills) is very talented. He's probably one of the better pitchers we'll see maybe all season long. In March and April, pitchers going to have an advantage anyway. It was definitely a pitcher's day."
Freshman Jackson Smith doubled in a run and added an RBI single in the fourth. Leadoff Damian Ruoff singled, doubled and scored three runs, and Nehemiah Parrish added two hits.
"They can swing it," Enright said. "It's going to be fun to watch (Smith) develop."
The Bearcats added three runs in the fourth and two in the sixth.
"What we tried to preach to the guys is we're going to be a small ball team," Enright said. "We've worked on their speed for two years, in the weight room, the fieldhouse. I told them we're going to steal ton of bases. We wanted to set the tone the very first inning, run the bases extremely hard. We talk about taking the pressure off."
While most teams lost a senior class to the season-less 2020 spring, Wheeler didn't graduate anyone from the group and now has eight seniors.
"When I first came to Wheeler, we had a sit-down, you're juniors, it's up to you guys to lead the team," Enright said. "It was a blessing in disguise with COVID. We were definitely rebuilding. We also have a very large, talented sophomore class. They were freshmen and freshmen always struggle mightily. Most of them played all summer with their travel teams. We kept in touch. I went out to some of their games. Almost all of these guys have been with me since day one."