Lakers look to push .500 coming into the tournament

Valmeyer returns former Gateway Grizzlie Justin Lilly, after taking last year off recovering from Tommy John Surgery. He is pictured playing first base against the St. Louis Spikes earlier this season. (Greg Stanek photo)

For the love of the game — that’s what keeps players coming back to play in the powerhouse Mon-Clair Baseball League. But as they go on to graduate college, life can sometimes get in the way. Unfortunately for the Valmeyer Lakers, that seems to be one of their major setbacks this year.

“I think we’ve got a good ball club coming into the (4th of July Valmeyer Mid-Summer Classic) tournament, but we are not hitting the ball well,” long-time Valmeyer coach Dennis Pieper said, a far cry from the slugging lineup they put together last year.

Pieper says the ball club is missing players like Columbia’s Joel Greatting, who hasn’t been able to play at all this year, and Columbia and former Eastern Illinois University stand-out Ben Thoma, both to work conflicts. Each of them were big offensive contributors last year, in addition to Southeast Missouri State star Derrick Gibson, who was one of the league’s top hitters in 2012 and is currently playing in an elite college summer league out east.

But Pieper says the team has the potential to turn the corner this season offensively, as they are returning last year’s Mel Patton Monroe Batting Champion Marshall Vallandingham of Mascoutah, and now senior infielder at Illinois State University, who hit .554 last season.

“I think we have a real offensive ball club, we are just not hitting much with men on (base),” Pieper explained, adding that the team is relying on its small ball and defense to win games.

Despite its personnel losses, Valmeyer is able to lean on veterans like Chris and Garrett Rohlfing. Garrett is currently one of the top pitchers in the league with a record of 2-0 and an ERA of 0.72. He is also joined by Mike Wuelling of Valmeyer and Lewis and Clark Community College, who ranks among top pitchers as well with an 1.50 ERA. His brother John joined the Lakers this season after a few years off from Mon-Clair baseball, according to Pieper.

In Sunday’s doubleheader split against the Belleville Rockies, the Lakers brought in a new face in Brooks McDowell, formerly of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He relieved current Gibault High School baseball coach and veteran Laker Andy Skaer in Valmeyer’s first game against the Rockies, which Valmeyer won, 4-3. McDowell then started the second game but was taken out after two short innings and relieved by Southwestern Illinois College southpaw and Waterloo grad D.J. Dillenberger. Valmeyer went on to drop that game, 6-1, at home against Belleville.

Pieper says he expects his team to be about a fourth or fifth seed in the tournament, looking to pick up two more games this weekend against the St. Louis Spikes and Fairview Heights Redbirds in a triple-header at Borsch Memorial Park Sunday.

The Lakers skipper says his team has also seen the likes of Adam Kunkel and Jake Degener stepping up at the plate; it will just take the team’s ability to string hits together in order for them make a run in the tournament.

But Pieper says defense is where it’s at.

“We can’t give up many (hits) because we aren’t putting up too many ourselves.”

For the Valmeyer Mid-Summer Classic seedings and bracket, click here. Also for the Valmeyer Mid-Summer Celebration schedule, the events planned around the baseball tournament, click here.

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