College players hone skills on local teams

By Mike Sandrolini

The baseball season for colleges and universities usually wrap up sometime in May, except for those teams that make the playoffs, of course. Their seasons extend well into May, and even into June if a D-I team is either knocking on the door of—or advances to—the College World Series.

But when the season ends, a good percentage of players don’t simply go home for the summer like they did back in the day. They play collegiate summer league ball to get additional game experience and improve/fine-tune their skills.

Examples of such leagues in the Chicago area include the six-team Midwest Collegiate League, in which the DuPage County Hounds, Lexington Snipes, Northwest Indiana Oilmen, Michigan City Lakers, Joliet Admirals and Southland Vikings compete.

Skokie resident Matt McTague played with the Park Ridge Padres this summer.

Skokie resident Matt McTague played with the Park Ridge Padres this summer.

Closer to the Niles Bugle coverage area, however, is the Metropolitan Collegiate Summer Baseball League of Illinois—formerly the Metro Thoroughbred League of Illinois—which has existed since the late 1970s.

Teams from communities such as Crystal Lake (Cardinals), Wheaton (White Sox), Palatine (Bulldogs) and Rockford (Rays), are in Metropolitan League, as well as two clubs based locally: the Des Plaines Patriots and the Park Ridge Padres (formerly the Park Ridge Indians).

Players who are part of these teams mainly come from schools throughout the Midwest, but it’s not uncommon to see a few players on each team’s roster from around the country.

A case in point is Patriots’ catcher-first baseman-outfielder Eric Schneider, who graduated from St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, Calif., and will be a senior at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., where he hit .339 with 28 RBI in 46 games this past spring.

Playing in the area for the summer not only gives Schneider an opportunity work on his game, but to see his father, who lives in Barrington.

“I like the Chicago summers and we looked up this team two years ago as a sophomore and it’s a great experience,” he said. “Good competition, fun. I got to be near my family so it’s a good experience.”

Ironically, Schneider went to Stonehill College on a football scholarship, but he has dislocated his shoulder three times in recent years and missed playing for the Patriots last summer due to shoulder surgery (he is no longer playing football). Schneider was out of the lineup during the early part of the Patriots’ 2015 season because of a fractured left (catching) hand which he suffered toward the end of his college season this year. He saw his first action of the summer in mid-June when the Patriots faced the Padres in a double-header.

“It’s good,” Schneider said in reference to his hand. “I’m very excited to get back at it and show everybody what I can do.”

Zac Charbonneau, in his third year as manager of the Patriots, is an assistant baseball coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

“They’re just looking for opportunities to play whether they’re driving in from Naperville, Wheaton, Crystal Lake or Durand, Ill. … I’m not sure where that is,” he said with a grin (Durand is west of Rockford). “There are some college coaches that really want to make sure their guys get some opportunities to grow and play in the summer, and maybe there are other guys who don’t want to take any time off and want to be out there and get better for their school season.”

Eric Ignatowski, third-year manager of the Padres who is an assistant at Division III Millikin University in downstate Decatur, said he sits down with each of his players to learn what their goals are for the summer.

“It’s my job to get them ready for the fall (season),” Ignatowski said. “They have to go into the fall at their schools, whether it’s D-I or D-III, be better and be prepared.

“I try to talk to every guy individually and see what they want to work on. Some guys are dual position (players) and they want to pitch and be a position player, so I get you innings in the infield and get you innings on the mound. Whatever they need I try to help them out as best I can.”

Skokie resident and 2013 Niles North graduate Matt McTague is one such player. McTague, who’ll be a junior this fall at Concordia College, appeared in 20 games on the mound this past spring for the Cougars, going 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA. He’s continued to shine with the Padres, and was named Padre Pitcher of the Week for Week 3 after appearing in five of the team’s six games during one particular weekend. He pitched nine innings over that stretch, allowing just one earned run while striking out six.

But McTague also played third base during the first game of the Padres’ doubleheader against the Patriots, who have two of his Concordia teammates on their squad: catcher Kevin Coppin and outfielder Cliff Krause. Also playing for the Patriots this season is Niles West grad Gabe Dwyer, a catcher at UIC who started 20 games for the Flames during the spring. He didn’t see any action with the Patriots early in their season as he was recovering from a foot fracture.

“You’re just trying to get your work in,” said McTague, in his second summer with the Padres. “Not trying to do too much, just getting your work in. and get better going into the fall. You face competition from every collegiate level, from NAIA , junior college, D-II, D-III, D-I so you see a lot of different guys. There’s really good talent in this league for the most part.”

The Metropolitan Collegiate Summer Baseball League of Illinois uses wooden bats, which as you might expect, change the dynamics of the game for players who are used to swinging metal or aluminum bats.

“It’s a lot harder to square up on the ball and it gives them (pitchers) an advantage,” McTague said.

“You’ve got to play better defense and (do) a little more hitting behind runners,” Charbonneau said, “because (getting) that extra base hit is fewer and farther between, especially early in the year because it takes guys a little time to get used to swinging the wood.”

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