High school baseball: Is Prairie Ridge the Fox Valley Conference's next state contender?

Predicting which Fox Valley Conference team will finish its season at the IHSA Baseball State Tournament in Joliet has become an annual rite of spring.

Eight times in the past 10 years an FVC team has won a sectional tournament. Six of those sectional champs won their supersectionals. And in the past two seasons the FVC has produced a Class 4A state champion (Crystal Lake South in 2017) and a runner-up (Huntley in 2018).

Given the FVC’s pedigree, odds are favorable that a conference member will wind up at Joliet Route 66 Stadium on June 7 and 8. Just who that might be remains to be seen, but Prairie Ridge looks like the best candidate heading into the season.

The Wolves (21-14, 14-9 FVC) tied for third in the conference and return three of their top hitters, one of whom is an NCAA Division I catcher, a third-year varsity shortstop and several of their best pitchers.

There also is a feeling of unfinished business from the returning players who suffered a painful 8-7 loss to Antioch in the Class 3A Lake View Sectional title game last year. Prairie Ridge had a four-run lead and needed six outs to reach the supersectional.

“It’s a big motivator,” said catcher Alex Powers, who signed with D-I Illinois-Chicago. “It’s a lesson not to take anything for granted. We took that moment for granted, and were planning for the next day, and we needed to take care of that moment right then. It was a humbling experience.”

Wolves coach Glen Pecoraro said they talked about it last summer before Prairie Ridge’s runner-up finish in the Phil Lawler Summer Classic, the high school summer state tournament, but have not dwelt on the loss, other than looking ahead.

“Ever since that game, the boys have been motivated,” Pecoraro said. “It’s really lit a fire under them. All offseason in the weight room, they’ve gotten after it with intent to really make a run this year. Man, I tell you, I really like this team.”

Huntley returns five starters from its team that lost to Plainfield North, 4-3, in the 4A state championship game. The Red Raiders always seem to be a contender in the FVC race.

Crystal Lake South also returns several key players, and Cary-Grove and McHenry have the top pitchers in the league in Quinn Preister and Joe Kaminski.

Pecoraro likes Prairie Ridge’s pitching depth, where Ben Harris and Michael Patterson lead the way. Junior Holden Phelps hits 90 mph on speed guns and should be one of the top pitchers, and Dom Listi, the left fielder who will move to center field, blew Pecoraro away with his summer mound performances.

“[Listi] was lights out,” Pecoraro said. “He was so inconsistent in the spring. He shocked the heck out of me.”

Harris, who will pitch at NAIA Judson University, also hits 90 and was 8 for 9 in save opportunities with a 0.30 ERA as closer last season. He also hit .404 with a team-high 31 RBIs as designated hitter.

“I really loved being closer,” Harris said. “Being a starter surprised me a little bit. I like being the man, going out there and just being in the moment.”

Prairie Ridge just wants to see Patterson on the mound for an injury-free season. He threw 13 2/3 innings late in the season and allowed only two earned runs.

Powers hit .327 and knocked in 24 runs in the middle of the order last season, while Listi hit .361 and drove in 22, mainly as the Wolves’ leadoff man.

“We had a lot of juniors playing key roles last year,” Listi said. “This year we have a lot of great incoming juniors and a lot of experienced seniors, a couple who have played three years. We can go as far as how we play in the playoffs. If we play good baseball at the end of the year, we can go really far.”

The Wolves’ experience, strong pitching, solid defense and offensive punch are all reasons Pecoraro keeps saying, “I really like this team.”

“We can do some great things as long as we keep our heads down,” Powers said. “We have a tough schedule in nonconference, and the Fox Valley Conference is always big competition. Just don’t look too far ahead; don’t get caught up in anything.”

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