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High School | General | 2/20/2019

Marist mounts Midwest charge

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jason Hodges (Marist HS Baseball)

2019 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

There is a palpable buzz being felt in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side here in late winter, and its emanating from the baseball program at Marist High School.

The 2019 RedHawks are a talented, tough and tested bunch coming off a 29-9 season in 2018 that ended just short of an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Class 4A state tournament berth. A plethora of top prospects are back from that team, and their return has people talking.

“We had a really good team last year,” Marist head coach and former big-leaguer Kevin Sefcik told Perfect Game during a recent telephone conversation. “We were playing good teams and beating good teams and we had the youngest team around, as far as juniors and sophomores playing. This year is just kind of the culmination of that.”

In fact, people are not only talking but they’re listening and buying in. When the RedHawks open their season March 15 at Lincoln-Way Central High School they’ll do so as the No. 33 team in the PG High School Preseason National Top 50 Rankings and as the highest ranked team in the PGHS Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin).

The players and coaches at Marist have heard all the preseason rumblings that translate into high expectations and they’re going to do their best to both block it out and embrace it. “This is the year” and “You guys have to do it this year” are the words ringing in the players’ ears, but they’re not coming from their head coach.

“I’m not going to go that route,” Sefcik said. “This is where we’ve been trying to get to. We’re trying to get to the point where we can compete with everybody and we’re going to try to enjoy the journey. It’s baseball and you can lose one game, but that doesn’t make the season unsuccessful.”

Twelve seniors occupy spots on the RedHawks’ 2019 roster and six of them were every-day players as juniors. It’s a cast of capable characters that features a pair of outfielders who are projected as legitimate MLB Draft prospects and five of the six have signed with NCAA Division-I programs.

Jason Hodges and Kendall Ewell are those outfielders, and they ooze athleticism and potential. Hodges is an Arkansas signee ranked as the No. 30 overall prospect (No. 2 Illinois) in the class of 2019 while Ewell has signed with Eastern Kentucky and is ranked Nos. 186/6.

Both are members of the 2019 PGHS Midwest Region Dream Team that was released Tuesday, just another example of the preseason hype swirling around this team.

“It’s extremely special because Marist baseball has been known for winning in the past, and now the past couple of years we’ve been in the rebuilding phase so we weren’t winning as much,” Hodges told PG this week. “It’s a great feeling to have the chance to put on the Marist jersey and get back to the winning thing that we used to have.”

Right on Hodges’ and Ewell’s heels amongst the seniors is shortstop/right-hander Jack Brannigan, a Notre Dame recruit ranked Nos. 420/15; corner-infielder Justin Janas (Illinois, top-500/61) and catcher/utility Max Malley (Evansville); senior infielder Ryan Doubek is a Benedictine University (Ill.) recruit ranked as a “follow.”

Other seniors expected to contribute include pitchers Matthew Mirabella and Denny Hogan, and a pair of junior right-handers – Caden Carr and Johnny Kubin – ate-up quite a few innings as sophomores a year ago.

“We’re really kind of senior-heavy this year; the last couple of years we were always a lot younger than everybody else,” Hodges said. “We all came in together and kind of grew together and trained together so we’re pretty loaded with seniors this year.”

Junior Dane Thomas, a Wright State commit ranked Nos. top-500/52 in the class of 2020, is set to join Hodges and Ewell in the outfield. Sophomore middle-infielder Noah Smith, a Louisville commit ranked Nos. 12/4 in the 2021 class, played in 35 games last year as a freshman.

“Our lineup is really good top-to-bottom, even with a couple of younger guys in there,” Sefcik said, mentioning the junior Thomas the sophomore Noah Smith specifically. “I always try to have a couple of younger guys on my team so we’re not always constantly rebuilding and we always have a couple of guys returning.”


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which means this year’s seniors were part of his first freshman class. Marist is a private school so it can attract students from all across the vast Chicagoland area without being restricted by district boundaries.

“We’ve had the chance to come in here and find the right kind of kids that want to buy into the program,” Sefcik said. “Then to watch them go through four years and have them take the program from a team that was not even ranked in the top-25 locally to a team that is ranked nationally is a great accomplishment.

“You feel like you’re doing the right thing but it’s also awesome because you feel like you’ve got the right guys,” he continued. “The players deserve all the credit in the world because without them, obviously, none of this would be possible.”

The RedHawks won 20 games in each of Sefcik’s first two seasons on the job but then dipped to 15-21 in his third season. He said the step back in 2017 wasn’t really unexpected because he was starting all of his current seniors from the class of 2019 as sophomores that year.

It was a season of adjustment and the young players took their lumps, but Sefcik was looking to the future; he decided the time was right to build the program on the backs of that core group.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” Hodges said of the 2017 season. “We were still sophomores so we were just getting a feel for being up there on varsity. It was a big learning curve but I feel like it’s going to pay off this year.”

It all came together in 2018 when the RedHawks reached the IHSA Class 4A sectional finals – two wins away from a state tournament berth – where they lost to Sandburg, a team they had beaten twice during the regular season.

“You never want to lose, but it’s one of those losses where you know if you don’t come out and play well you’re going to get beat,” Sefcik said. “I think that kind of teaches them a lesson a little bit, that you can’t take anything for granted.”

Sefcik knows his way around the Chicago baseball scene a little bit. He is a 1989 graduate of Andrew High School in Tinley Park and went on to play at Saint Xavier University, an NAIA school in Chicago. An outfielder, the Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the 1993 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Saint Xavier, and he eventually played parts of six seasons (1995-2000) with the Phillies, appearing in 104 games in ‘98 and 111 in ’99.

After ending his playing career he served as an assistant coach at both Saint Xavier and Brother Rice High School, and before taking the Marist job he was the director of baseball operations for Illinois Sparks Baseball Club out of Orland Park. He’ll share details of his experiences with his players from time-to-time, but nothing is force-fed.

“There are kids that are really into it and take in everything you try to tell them,” Sefcik said. “They take your instruction and they listen to you because they know that you’ve been there, and those kids benefit. It all depends on if the kid is coachable and that could be anybody.”

The 10-team East Suburban Catholic Conference (ESCC) of which Marist is a member needs no introduction on the national stage, with Joliet  Catholic carrying the league’s torch. It consists of both IHSA Class 3A and 4A schools and its members are probably best-known for their football prowess, but league members Joliet Catholic, Marist, Notre Dame, St. Viator and Marian Catholic have all have state baseball championships in their histories.

“It’s a grind every game, Sefcik said. “There aren’t any gimmes when we play in our conference and you’ve got to have a lot of depth.”

Added Hodges: “Every time it’s a conference game you’ve got to come with your A-game. In the conference, there’s really no days off, the pitching is great, the lineups are always good; it’s really great competition.”

There are some other pretty cool things on the 2019 schedule for these guys to look forward to this spring. After they play a few games locally in late March, the RedHawks will travel to Cary, N.C., to take part in the USA Baseball National High School Invitational (NHSI) April 3-6. When they get back home they can look forward to facing Nazareth Academy in a game at Wrigley Field.

Being invited to the NHSI is really a big deal. Marist will be one of 16 teams from across the country to compete at the event and is the only invitee from Illinois.

“We’re all fired-up about that; it’s a great honor,” Sefcik said. “I know the teams that are going to be down there are unbelievable. I know we’re taking a really good lineup down there but I also know the pitching we’re going to face is going to be off the charts.”

Regardless of what’s in front of them on the schedule, Hodges is confident he and his teammates will go into the game with the right attitude. The seniors have been a part of the program for four years now and they’ve learned how to pick each other up whenever some picking up needs to be done.

… … …

Sefcik has reason to believe there’s a good chance that both Jason Hodges and Kendall Ewell will be drafted in June, and Jack Brannigan is in that conversation, as well. Projections like that can bring a lot of attention to a program, and there’s nothing wrong with people paying attention when they’re doing so for the right reasons.

“It’s going to be a busy spring, and the pro guys are going to be around a lot which I think can be pretty cool for the kids,” he said. “Every game we play there’s going to be a pro scout there for the draft so I think it’s going to make them concentrate more on this season and getting graduated and going to college. I feel like they’re going to be focused a lot more on this, too.”

Hodges is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound prospect who is coming off a junior season in which he slashed .369/.468/.729 with 13 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 41 RBI in 37 games and was named the ESCC Player of the Year.

He also played with the Chicago Scouts Association at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October and was named to the all-tournament team after hitting .431 (8-for-19) with five extra-base hits (1 HR), eight RBI and a 1.297 OPS.

Ewell checks in at 6-3, 220, and he and Hodges are almost indistinguishable when viewed from afar while playing in Marist’s outfield. He was with Hodges at both the PG National Showcase in St. Petersburg, Fla., and in Jupiter playing with the CSA.

Brannigan (6-1, 185) is another interesting dude. He’s been Sefcik’s shortstop the past two seasons but started pitching last spring and was producing a low-90s fastball. He ended up compiling a 4-2 record with a 3.26 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings for the RedHawks, while also hitting .301 and stealing a team-high 22 bases. Brannigan was an all-tournament selection in Jupiter playing with the Cangelosi Sparks.

“Doing those (PG events) and the Area Code (Games) with all the scouts coming, you know there’s going to be a little bit of pressure with a lot of eyes on you,” Hodges said. “At this point, it’s not like clockwork but you’re kind of just used to it and you can out there and play, run your hardest on and off the field and do everything else that you’re supposed to do.”

He went on to tell PG that every player on the team is excited about playing in front of a large contingent of scouts this spring and called it an “honor” to even be considered.

But it’s more important for the players to keep their heads on straight keep focused on winning a bunch of games and not worry about how many scouts are in the stands. If they play solid, smart, fundamentally sound baseball, he figures, the draft will take care of itself.

“I feel like this is our season,” Hodges said. “We all basically came into together during our sophomore year, and it’s been kind of a rebuilding process. Coach Sefcik got us all up there early on varsity and he gave us a chance to excel, and we just kept working at it, working at it, and last year we made it to the sectional championship.

“We lost there but we kept building and now I feel like we’re kind of at the height at where we should be to where we’re definitely a state (championship) contender.”

Hodges was reluctant to call the atmosphere surrounding the team “laid-back” although there is plenty of fun to be had. But when it’s time to go to work, the players try to their business a certain way, the way that produces the positive results they so badly crave.

“With the coaching staff it’s always about going out there and playing your hardest and have fun, but it’s been said that this year we have a great chance at a state run so we should go do it,” he said. “It’s the same message all the way around and this year everybody knows we’re in it to win it; we’re trying to win that state championship and fun along the way while we’re doing it.”

After winning 55 games in his first three seasons (right around 18 per year), Sefcik watched his guys put it all together last spring and put 29 “W’s” up on the board, 14 more than they had the previous year.

This season could, indeed, be even more special, but baseball can be a fickle game that never plays favorites. Good teams are capable of creating their own breaks and seldom, if ever, beat themselves, but stuff happens along the way.

“I’m just going to try to take it all in,” Sefcik concluded. “I know we’re going to be a good team … and maybe we’ll make that run (to the state tournament) but I’m not going to stress-out  if we lose some games.”

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