SEE ALSO: High School Top 25
Coming off a 35-4 season and a Chicago Catholic League title, Brother Rice High enters the spring with high expectations.
They have a two-headed beast at the front of the rotation, with seniors Ryan Kutt and Jack Guzek both prominent Division I prospects who will be evaluated by professional teams this spring. The Crusaders are well-rounded defensively, with senior Andy Lopez behind the plate and senior shortstop Ryan King and junior second baseman Sam Jones forming a promising double-play duo. Brother Rice is poised to make a statement about the quality of Midwestern baseball this season.
But Brother Rice prefers to look at itself as an underdog. After their 2016 season ended with a sectional final loss, the Crusaders will face an extremely challenging schedule this spring. They'll match up against Kentucky powerhouse St. Xavier, out of Louisville, en route to the National High School Invitational later in March. Furthermore, many midwesterners see the Chicago Catholic League as one of the most underrated conferences in the nation.
"We're going to be a true underdog at NHSI," Brother Rice head coach John McCarthy said. "In the Midwest, teams play with a blue-collar attitude and don't feel truly appreciated on the national level. We know how intense each practice has to be for us to compete against some of the best teams in the country."
In addition to their difficult national schedule, Brother Rice will face stiff competition at home. The Chicago Catholic League has a reputation for producing top-scale sports figures, including longtime NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and two-time Cy Young award winner Denny McLain.
CCL baseball packs some punch this year. St. Laurence (Burbank, Ill.) has a promising pitching prospect in Marius Balandis, and Mount Carmel has an explosive 2018 prospect in outfielder Alek Thomas.
While the Crusaders like their chances this season, the program hasn't always been in such great shape. McCarthy, along with assistants Tim O'Connell, Sean McBride and Billy Copp, has established a winning culture at Brother Rice.
In McCarthy's first season at the helm, Brother Rice had two players who would go on to play in college: Kevin Sullivan (Middle Tennessee) and Kevin Biondic (Maryland). By the time Sullivan and Biondic were seniors, the program was poised for its next step.
"He preaches, 'the team, the team, the team' and everyone buys in," Biondic said of McCarthy's leadership early on in his tenure at Brother Rice. "He really emphasizes seniors having freshmen's backs and juniors helping sophomores and stuff like that."
That philosophy allowed Kutt to have an impact on the program from Day One.
"The first time I saw Ryan Kutt, I knew right away that he was going to be a star," McCarthy said. "He had the attitude, the energy the competitiveness. The way he'd come right after hitters—he was attacking at all times.
"You know when Ryan Kutt is on the hill, you can beat any team in the country. He's just so confident in his ability and that carries over to the rest of the team. He makes everyone around him more sure of themselves. He makes his teammates better."
Kutt, who is committed to play at Illinois, will draw in scouts this spring. His fastball has tickled the low 90s, and his natural ability to spin his hard, late-breaking slider has scouts excited about his potential. He'll also bat cleanup for the Crusaders.
In addition to Kutt, McCarthy will count on Guzek, a righthander committed to Indiana State.
"A lot of scouts in the area are excited about Jack," McCarthy said. Guzek has a broad-shouldered frame and a quick arm. While he's a little under the radar right now, he won't stay hidden for long, as most MLB teams are expected to send several scouts to NHSI.
Michigan State recruit King is another player who has McCarthy excited.
"He's a 6.6-6.7 runner (in the 60-yard dash), he absolutely flies. Ryan's actions are electric at shortstop," McCarthy said. "He has good hand-eye coordination and a strong arm. Everything is quick-twitch with him."
Beyond the pure talent in the 2017 class, Brother Rice has plenty of talented underclassmen. But it's their competitive fire and their blue-collar approach to the game that separates them from other talented teams around the country.
"I think what puts them ahead is the toughness that everyone brings," Biondic said of his former teammates. "Kutt is one of the toughest competitors I've seen, and he was just a freshman when I was a senior. It's unbelievable watching that kid play."
With a group of star players leading the way, the Crusaders should be competitive regardless of their opponent. But this spring isn't just about wins and losses. It's about celebrating the contributions that the seniors have brought to the table, while enjoying the ride.
"These seniors really bought in and believed we were going to do something great here," McCarthy said. "It will be tough to see them go. We're enjoying every minute with this team and emphasizing having fun while doing it. I want the seniors to enjoy the experience. They've earned that."
Bailey Following Myers' Path
Wil Myers is the only player ever drafted out of Wesleyan Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.). Since being selected in the third round of the 2009 draft, Myers has transitioned from catching to playing the outfield and first base. He was the 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, American League rookie of the year in 2013, and made his first all-star team in 2016.
Current Wesleyan Christian catcher Patrick Bailey has plenty of reason to look up to Myers.
"I do look up to him," Bailey said. "Obviously being a guy from this school I'm trying to follow in his footsteps and I guess ultimately create better footsteps."
Wesleyan head coach Scott Davis sees some similarities between Myers and Bailey, but acknowledges that they are very different players.
"Wil's approach was more relaxed, laid back. Patrick's approach is more analytical," Davis said. "Patrick comes at it from more of an academic standpoint. He understands the game, he understands hitters. He's more in tune with some of the analytics of the game, whereas with Wil, it was just roll him out there and let him play. So they're similar in their preparation but different in the way they prepared."
It's that analytical approach that has allowed Bailey to elevate his game. He was one of the catchers on the 2016 18U national team that won a gold medal at the Pan American championship. His defense is his biggest strength. He's a very good blocker, and he has advanced lateral quickness and footwork behind the plate. But the things Bailey does well go beyond his physical attributes. The 17-year-old is already calling pitches and has essentially become the quarterback of his team.
"I want to go to my pitcher's strengths. In the bullpen before the game I want to see what's working," Bailey said of his game-calling. "I'm looking at his fastball, seeing how it's moving and if he's able to locate it gloveside. And then with offspeed pitches, looking to see which one is better, the breaking ball or the changeup. And with high school baseball you can't get a scouting report, so I like to be aggressive and see what they can do with the fastball and just kind of work off of that."
In his 15 years at Wesleyan Christian, Davis hasn't had a player quite like Bailey come through his program.
"I've spent enough time with him to know that he understands hitters. He understands pitchers. He understands counts. So we let him go," Davis said. "Our pitchers love throwing to him. It relieves some pressure off of me because I trust what he's doing. In the past, we haven't allowed catchers to do that, but Patrick calls a fantastic game. There is a purpose behind every call."
Bailey said that he's looking to get his timing down, but that he feels very comfortable defensively. Bailey runs well and shows some flashes as a switch-hitter. His offense will play a key role in determining how highly he is valued come the draft next June.