Preseason Power 25 Countdown: No. 2 Neuqua Valley

By Andy Sroka
Staff Writer

The Illinois high school season kicks off on March 12th, the first day for regular season games.

Leading up to the opening week of games we will be rolling out team previews of high school teams all across the state and across all classifications, eventually launching our Preseason Power 25.

We will bring you a snapshot of what to expect along with top players and keys to success for that particular team.

Team: Neuqua Valley
Preseason Rank: 2
2017 Record: 35-2
Conference: DuPage Valley
IHSA Class: 4A
Head Coach: Robin Renner
Playoff Run: Super-sectionals appearance
2017 Final Rank: 5
Returning Starters: 6
Returning Pitchers: 3


James Gargano, SS (Butler)
Andrew O’Toole, 2B (Benedictine, IL)
Austin Waeghe, RHP (Butler)
Justin Hicks, LHP
Mason LeBreck, RHP


Name State School Class Pos Commitment
James Kulak IL Neuqua Valley 2018 LHP Purdue
Jack Rigoni IL Neuqua Valley 2018 OF Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
Ricky Castro IL Neuqua Valley 2018 RHP Parkland JC
Ryan Wheeler
IL Neuqua Valley 2018 2B  
Noah Herdman IL Neuqua Valley 2018 3B  
Jake Wenz IL Neuqua Valley 2018 C  
Evan Ranneklev IL  Neuqua Valley 2018  OF  
Trevor Tesmond IL  Neuqua Valley 2018  OF  
Andrew Churchman IL Neuqua Valley 2018 RHP  
Zach Wenz IL Neuqua Valley 2018 RHP
Adam Graham IL Neuqua Valley 2018 INF/OF  
Noah Ernst IL Neuqua Valley 2018 RHP/C/1B Milwaukee School of Engineering
Nick Taylor IL Neuqua Valley 2019 INF  
Justin Blazek IL Neuqua Valley 2019 1B  
Casey Pickering IL Neuqua Valley 2019 RHP  
Jake Karaba IL Neuqua Valley 2019 RHP  
Anthony Sterchele
IL Neuqua Valley  2019 RHP


Junior RHP Jacob Karaba emerged at an event this winter and looks to be adding to an already solid Neuqua Valley pitching staff. Karaba showed excellent command of an 85-87 mph fastball with arm side run that he peppered the bottom of the zone with. Add a straight change with feel and a short darting curveball at 73-75 mph and Karaba could see a number of valuable innings this spring for the state contender.

Jacob Karaba (2.19.18)


Senior LHP James Kulak, plain and simple, is one of the top senior arms in the state and he has been a huge part of Neuqua’s success over the last two years. Kulak consistently sat in the upper-80’s with his fastball during his starts last spring and holds the velocity throughout. He can throw all three of his pitches to both sides of the plate and is not afraid to run his fastball in on the hands of right-handed hitters. He is the ace every high school team is looking for on their staff and he has valuable experience at the varsity level and has pitched in meaningful playoff games. Last year, Neuqua was one win away from state. Kulak will once again play a big role in determining if Neuqua can get over the hump this spring.


The Wildcats propelled themselves in 2017 from unranked in the preseason all the way to a 35-2 season (21-1 in the DuPage Valley Conference) that ended in a heartbreaking super-sectional loss to St. Laurence. That end-of-the-season loss serves as motivation to a large number of returning starters, including 2017 all-conference selections Noah Herdman, James Kulak, Evan Ranneklev, Jack Rigoni, and Ryan Wheeler. Despite the amount of on-field experience returning to the Naperville high school, the Wildcats will have to deal with some key losses, especially the hole at shortstop left behind by James Gargano, who graduated and will be playing his baseball at Butler University this spring. Wheeler is the likely choice to fill the void at shortstop.

Still, having a lineup led by Wheeler, Herdman, Rigoni, Ranneklev, Tesmond, Wenz and with a rotation headlined by Kulak, there is reason for Neuqua Valley to dream on repeating as conference, regional, and sectional champs with a shot at super-sectional redemption.

Last year, Neuqua Valley’s exceptional defense helped the team to its 35-win campaign and the number of starters returning should keep its glovework intact. The trio of returning all-conference starters should shore up its lineup, too, but questions pop up after the Purdue commit Kulak's spot in the rotation. Those questions are likely to be answered by senior RHP Ricky Castro, a Parkland commit. Some other options in the rotation will be senior RHPs Andrew Churchman and Noah Ernst along with 2019s Casey Pickering and Karaba. A sleeper to the staff could be junior Anthony Sterchele. Sterchele is a 6-foot-5, 200-pound, right-hander who can run his fastball into the upper-80s.


Last season was phenomenal for Neuqua Valley; 35 wins, a conference crown, and a super-sectional run. The icing on top was its impressive list of returning starters. They have a bonafide No. 1 on the mound paired with three big bats in an effort to surmount a return to state. Though their losses were few, they were impactful. Overcoming some of the holes last year’s graduates created will take some time, but the Wildcats will field the experience and roster the talent that’s capable of repeating as DVC champions -- and beyond -- in 2018.

Find more information on the 2018 Wildcats below:

+ Full Schedule
Team Website
+ Gamechanger

Make sure to follow @pbrillinois on Twitter for the most up-to-date coverage throughout the season.