Photo by Jeff Helmkamp
The Civic Memorial Eagles meet in the outfield at the Bethalto Sports Complex to congratulate one another after a 12-7 win over the rival Jersey Panthers on April 29. The red-hot Eagles had won seven straight and 12 of their last 14 entering this week.
When the Civic Memorial High School baseball team started the season with five consecutive losses, Eagles’ coach Gary Bruening feared the worst.
“It looked like a long season,” he said.
Then it all changed.
“We started playing better,” Bruening said. “It was a nice surprise.”
The 16-13 Eagles took a seven-game winning streak into Wednesday’s home game with Mississippi Valley Conference foe Mascoutah. CM, which has won 12 of its last 14 games, also has a rescheduled Valley date Friday at Triad.
The Eagles have put themselves back into the thick of things in the conference chase. Once 0-3, they were 5-3 before the Mascoutah game. Thus, all facets of the Eagles’ play have crystallized in striking synergy.
“Our pitching started coming around and getting better; we began hitting more and our defense improved,” Bruening said.
Multiple players have contributed to the cause, but likely none more surprising than sophomore left-hander Brandon Hampton. He began the season as a junior varsity player, yet improved immensely and emerged as a key varsity performer.
“Brandon has gone from a JV pitcher to one of the top pitchers on our staff,” Bruening said.
Hampton is 5-0 with a 2.12 ERA and has registered key conference wins. When he’s not pitching, Hampton plays center field and is making the most of it. The leadoff hitter is batting .302, one of seven Eagles swatting .300 or better.
Zac Cato, 3-3 with a 3.05 ERA, joins Hampton and Jack Walker, sporting a 4-3 record, as the Eagles’ leading pitchers. Tyler Andrus has two victories. Jaxsen Helmkamp has pitched in successfully, Bruening said.
You can start with sophomore catcher Brandon Carpenter, batting .364. He’s sharing receiving duties with Konnar Loewen, another sophomore. Chaz Johannigmeier (.362), Lukas Jones (.349), Corey Price (.349), Devin Daniels (.348) and Caleb Buhs (.322) also have rattled the bats. Daniels, a senior outfielder, owns 11 extra base hits, including seven doubles. He has a team-high 25 RBIs.
“Devin played JV ball as a junior and was productive,” Bruening said. “Now, he has carried it over to the varsity team. He has good speed and a strong arm. When he makes contact, the ball jumps.”
The same can be said of the 6-foot-6 Buhs, bound for Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. The senior outfielder had accounted for 20 RBI and 13 extra base hits, including six triples.
“The middle of the order started hitting the ball and that made a difference,” said Bruening, also including Connor Bryant (.274) in the mix.
Jones, a senior shortstop, also has emerged as a difference-maker, Bruening said.
“He’s hitting well and making plays,” the coach added.
Price, a sophomore infielder and John Whitworth, a junior outfielder, have battled injuries. However, the Eagles have proved resourceful in finding pieces to fit into their puzzle. They expect to be at full health for the upcoming Class 3A Jersey Regional, a five-team affair featuring four Valley squads, plus Marquette Catholic.
“Some of the kids went from JV ball to varsity ball this season and some have gone from freshmen ball to the varsity,” Bruening said. “When we got a couple of good wins after that (winless) start, it boosted our confidence. Things have been going well for us.”
Nobody is savoring it more than the 59-year-old Bruening. He retired as a teacher three years ago after a 33-year run. Bruening guided the Eagles from 1995-2011, then returned last season and directed them to a 20-11 record. His long career includes more than 330 victories. And counting.
“It’s a year-to-year deal for me,” Bruening said of his second head coaching tour. “But I’m enjoying it and it’s fun to see the kids playing with confidence and having success.”
As far as Bruening is concerned, that’s what it’s all about in keeping the Eagles going and often soaring.
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