No. 1 Lyons Township ready to bring home another title

By Sean Duncan
Executive Director

To be clear, there are several teams that feature higher-end talent up and down the lineup, and staffs with more frontline arms, than Lyons Township this season.

That, too, was the case in 2011, when the Lions upended one of the most stacked teams in recent memory – Providence Catholic – to win the Class 4A state championship. Double that point last spring, when, playing with a handful of fresh faces in the lineup, the Lions struggled at times during the regular season, and in fact finished second in their conference, only to come a questionable call away from bringing home their second consecutive state championship to the LaGrange school.

Certainly, on paper No. 2 Lincoln-Way North has the roster composition built for a state championship, which is to say a pitching staff loaded with shutdown arms, and a senior-laden lineup all destined for a college program.

2013 Season Preview Mag CoverThe Lions, on the other hand, have that unquantifiable “it” factor. “It” being they win playoff games. Which leads to championships. Multiple championships. Which, ultimately, leads to a winning culture, a quiet and confident winning culture.

“We have a pretty good talent pool, but there are teams who down the lineup have more Division 1 players,” said Lyons Township coach George Ushela, who has guided teams to two state championships, four summer state championships, and second- and fourth-place finishes since taking over the program in 2001.

“I think we do a pretty good job at maximizing talent, and we preach to kids to stay within themselves. Our kids make good decisions. We will coach kids through bad decisions, but we want kids to make their own decisions. … I think as a coach, our kids don’t play with much fear. The only doghouse they get in is for lack of effort and classroom stuff. And we preach a lot about being good teammates.”

The net result is a staggering run of success. In a 13-month window, Lyons Township accomplished, in order: 2011 state championship, 2012 state runner-up (lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to Oak Park in one of the most memorable title games in recent memory), and 2012 IHSBCA summer state championship last July.

But the Lions aren’t the Prep Baseball Report’s preseason No. 1 team simply because of their past feats. They have talent. They have depth. They have athleticism throughout the lineup. And they have Keith Lehmann.

The senior two-way standout is one of the more decorated prospects in recent years, having played an integral role in two championships and pitched the Lions into the state title game last spring. Ranked No. 6 in Illinois’ 2013 class, Lehmann earned first-team Prep Baseball Report All-State honors as a junior after the 6-foot-1, 170-pound RHP/3B posted a 10-2 record with a 0.86 ERA and 83 strikeouts to 16 walks in 80 innings pitched. He also served as the team’s offensive catalyst, finishing with 7 home runs, 13 doubles, 37 RBI while batting .343.

Lehmann’s ability alone can carry a team. But it is his quiet leadership and propensity to rise to the occasion that should guide the Lions to another state championship quest.

“He’s got quiet confidence and composure,” said Ushela of Lehmann. “He doesn’t have that flaring intensity but he’s intense. He just likes to play baseball. He is true to himself. He doesn’t over overswing, he doesn’t overthrow. He likes challenges. The bigger the game the better. It’s been fun coaching him. He just plays the game well. I don’t know a flaw in his game.”

On the mound, the University of Michigan recruit can shut down any opponent with his consistent 88-91 mph fastball, and the ability to throw his sharp curveball seemingly any time for strikes.

The Lions, however, are far from a one-man show.

“As always, we have solid hitting up and down lineup and solid pitching,” said Lehmann. “We have a well-rounded team. I think that’s why we have so much success. We play the game the right way. We pick each other up. The main thing is team chemistry. We’re a selfless team. We play for each other.”

The Lions are certainly one of the fastest teams in the state. Senior SS Stewart Nelson (signed at Evansville) and senior left-handed hitting OF Mike Lorenz (St. Joseph’s College) are top-level athletes, both running the 60 in 6.6 or better. Lorenz earned MVP of the IHSBCA summer state tournament last July.

Junior 2B Sam Cybulski, junior OF/LHP Max Larson, senior LHP/1B Tom Prescott, senior INF/RHP Zach Carlson, and junior OF Josh Kuntz all have excellent speed as well.

Lehmann is the horse on the mound, but Ushela also has a healthy mix of righties and lefties at his disposal. Senior LHP Alex Vannucci (3-1, 1.86 ERA) and Prescott are a pair of left-handers who are difficult to square up. Carlson, Larson and several others will also compete for innings.

“The one thing we have is competitiveness within the team,” Ushela said. “They’re all pushing each other.”

Junior C/3B/RHP Sam Heilenbach, the younger brother of 2012 graduate Steven Heilenbach (now at Illinois State) should be a run-producer at the plate. Junior C Kyle Dilcher, senior INF Mitchell Van Koevering (Kalamazoo College), senior OF Jim Pavlick and senior OF Matt Aikens should also contribute for the Lions.

“We have talent. We always seem to have talent,” said Lehmann. “There’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be back in the state championship game. It’s just a matter of how hard we want to work.”

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