By Dan McGrath

Coach Mike Anderson viewed the opener on March 13 as indicative of how the 2024 baseball season might go for the Leo Lions. 

Playing “small ball” throughout, the Lions pushed across four runs in the top of the seventh inning and beat Public League campaigner Kennedy 6-2 at Kennedy’s Wentworth Park field. 

“That’s got to be our formula – pitching and defense and scratch out runs,” Anderson said. “We don’t have a lot of big hitters, so we’ll have to create scoring opportunities and take advantage.”

Imagine his surprise, then, when the Lions ran their winning streak to five with victories over Christ the King, Bogan, Corliss and Hillcrest by such non-small-ball scores as 16-0, 16-1, 22-1 and 19-0.

Of course, none of those teams ranks anywhere near the top echelon of high school baseball in the Chicago area. And Lindblom, a Class 3-A Regional champion last season, put an end to the winning streak and brought the Lions back to reality with a 13-5 victory at Lindblom on March 27.

But a 5-1 start was an encouraging sign for a young, rebuilding team that knows what it will be up against in the ever-competitive Chicago Catholic League. 

Leo’s 2023 squad that claimed a Class 2-A regional title and a win over Catholic League champion Brother Rice featured seven seniors: shortstop Joaquin Huerta, center fielder Mitchell Hall,  three-year starters Matthew Hernandez and Esai Jacinto and two-year mainstays Nate Sims, Kyrent Cole and Amare Hall.

This year’s team has one senior, first baseman Clyde Akins. But most of the sophomores and juniors who are filling out the roster have grown up playing baseball, unlike in past seasons, when Anderson and his staff were trying to teach the basics of the game at the high-school level while competing in the Catholic League.

“We’ll go as far as our pitching takes us,” Anderson said.

Sophomore Derrick Davis threw eight innings of one-run ball with 15 strikeouts in beating Kennedy and Hillcrest. He had two of the Lions’ 16 hits with two RBIs in the Hillcrest game. Juniors Aiden Lott, Ian Dunn and Marshawn Durr also drove in two runs apiece, with Dunn scoring three times.

Sophomore Michael Lewis got the start against Corliss and went the distance in a game that was halted after four innings by the mercy rule. Durr, Eddie Hernandez and Derrion Anderson had two hits apiece. 

Hernandez’s bases-clearing triple was the big blow for Leo in the Christ the King game. Dunn was 2-for-2 with four RBIs and sophomore Devin Vassel went  2-for-3 with three RBIs.

The Lions managed 10 hits against Lindblom, two each by Vassel and sophomore Fred Chandler. Lott had a two-run single.

A trip to the Peoria area for games with Bushnell and Prairie City on April 6 will be Leo’s final tuneup for Catholic League play, which begins with a game at defending league champion Brother Rice on Monday, April 8.