Hogan pitches West to SPC East title
Cam Karczewski provides the big blast against Plainfield C.
Last updated 5/25/2021 at 7:36am
A year ago, the Joliet West baseball team was ready to compete.
The Tigers were coming off a loss in the regional championship game and had several key players back.
That season, however, was lost to the pandemic protocol set forth by the State of Illinois and the Illinois High School Association.
Entering the 2021 season, West knew it had a few talented players, but there were a lot of question marks — namely could a conference pitching rotation that saw 6-foot, 8-inch sophomore Conner Hogan as the elder of the staff be enough against senior-dominated teams.
Hogan tossed a 3-1 complete game win over Plainfield Central Monday night to pitch the team to the Southwest Prairie Conference Eastern Division title.
Hogan allowed one run on six hits over seven innings, striking out three and walking one.
On the season, he is 6-0 with a 2.30 ERA in 11 games started. Hogan boasts a 1.09 WHIP and has struck out 38 hitters to only eight walks.
“This is great,” Hogan said of the conference title. “Everyone is getting it done. We are going out there and having fun and playing for the win.
“I don’t think about being a strikeout pitcher. I just put the ball in play and my defense makes the plays.”
That was evident in the top of the seventh inning when centerfielder Matt Stariha flashed the leather on a diving catch to take away extra bases from Central’s Howard Jordan.
“I give them hugs in the dugout on plays like that,” Hogan laughed. “It is an amazing feeling when they are putting their bodies on the line out there.”
The big offensive hit in the game came off the bat of Cam Karczewski, who stroked a 2-RBI triple in the bottom of the fifth to put West ahead 2-1. He then scored the final run of the game on a wild pitch.
“It was big,” Karczewski said. “I was asked to come through and I came through. It was big. I was looking for something out over the plate and tried to go the opposite way and I drove it that way.”
As a senior, Karczewski was one of the players looking forward to the team last season.
“Last year, we had most of our pitchers coming back, so I thought we were going to be good,” he said. “This year, we didn’t know how pitching would be and guys showed up. No one expected us to win this other than us because we believed in ourselves.”
Karczewski’s dad, West head coach John Karczewski, was happy for the whole team to get the win.
“This is the first conference title since 2013,” he said. “Going into this year, we really didn’t know what to expect. You have the three game series and we go sophomore, freshman, freshman on the mound and we score when we have to and play good defense.
“It is easy to go home and go to sleep at night and get up the next morning and know you are going to hang with these guys and these coaches. We put a lot of time in the fall with this group and they are good group.”
He is also happy to see his son get the winning hit and be the offensive leader of the clinching game.
“When the coaches son is batting leadoff and playing shortstop, he better produce,” he said. “He has done that. He has come through with big hits all year and that one got down. I am happy for him. He is a quiet leader on this team and I am proud of him.”
Coach Karczewski has had all the faith in his sophomore ace since the beginning, so Monday’s performance is nothing new to him.
“He has gotten better since start one,”coach Karczewski said. “I saw him in winter and I told him to mentally prepare to pitch varsity baseball. We knew there are not many 6-8 lefties that can throw strikes out there sitting on the sophomore level. He is more and more composed and he is fun to watch.”
While he may have been told to prepare over the winter, Hogan was still nervous in his first outing.
“The first game, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to think. But, after the first inning of my first game, I was like, ‘OK, I got this.’ “ Hogan said. “I feel great. The team has been very supportive. I just go out there and do my thing and hope for the best. This is a great group of guys. They have so much support and energy and I am just so happy to be around this group.”
Despite being a sophomore, Hogan’s talent coupled with his imposing frame brings out the best in his opponents — something he is always ready for.
“I always come out with my best, but if I see the other team get riled up or talking crap, I just get fired up even more and try even harder,” he said.
Competitiveness and baseball are in Hogan’s blood — literally.
Although it is something he doesn’t talk about, let alone brag about, Hogan is the maternal grandson of MLB Hall of Famer and Chicago White Sox legend Carlton Fisk.
Hogan, however, is making a name for himself with his play on the field and not who he is related to.
“I am trying to do my own thing,” Hogan said. “He helps me a lot and he is very supportive. I am very happy he is my grandpa, but to me, he is just grandpa.”
Hogan is honoring his grandfather this season by wearing Fisk’s legendary No. 72 for the first time in his baseball career.
His grandfather is not the only catcher to help Hogan this season, as Joliet West senior Ty Batusich has helped a lot with the entire West staff — behind the plate and with the bat.
“Ty is a fiery guy and we talked to him at the beginning of the season that he had to treat these guys different,” John Karczewski said. “He can’t get all over them. These aren’t 17-and-18-year old guys. He has done a phenomenal job.”
Batusich has watched Hogan grow all season from that nervous first game to pitching a conference title clincher.
“The staff has had its ups and downs, but after the first week, we got it down,” Batusich said. “I just work with them every single day. They are young and don’t know a lot, so it’s just about teaching them stuff.
“He hides the ball well. Each start, he comes out better and better and that is the goal — just to keep getting better,” Batusich said. “We know every single time he comes out there, we have a chance to win.”
Hogan is enjoying the opportunity to throw to a catcher that was also on varsity at a young age.
“He is such a good catcher both offensively and defensively. He is a great teammate and is very supportive. I couldn’t be happier to have him as my catcher,” Hogan said. “If I am ever getting in my head, he comes out and talks to me and I calm down.”
Batusich has also enjoyed winning in his final year in a West uniform.
“It is amazing,” Batisuch said. “After that first week, we got it going and everyone clicked. Out pitching is going really well right now and everyone is hitting 1-9. It feels nice. There is no one in this state that thought we would win conference this year, so to do it and prove them wrong is huge.”
Batusich has been the offensive standout this season for West, as he is hitting .557 on the season with seven home runs and 31 RBI with a 1.80 OPS.
“I am trying to hunt fastballs,” Batusich said of his approach. “After my first at bat, the off speed is coming, so then, I juts hunt strikes and look for off speed up and don’t chase anything. I try and maintain the walks and stay composed out there and just stay in my zone.”
What he and the rest of the Tigers are doing is working, as West is now 15-8-1 on the season and 12-1 in the SPC East.”
It is fun to be a Tiger right now,” coach Karczewski said. “These guys have worked hard and they deserve it.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story includes some quotes from a previously posted feature story.