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Panthers emphasize improvement on the diamond

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Proviso West, sophomore, Alex Martinez, in the cleanup spot.

By Mike Sandrolini

HILLSIDE | The Proviso West baseball team has endured its share of lopsided defeats this season. Many of the Panthers’ games haven’t lasted beyond the fifth inning, when, by IHSA rules, if a team is leading by 10 runs or more at that point, the game ends. (High schools play seven-inning games.)

Last week, the Panthers faced York High School in Elmhurst—a regular West Suburban Conference Silver Division opponent—three times. They lost those three contests by a combined score of 65-6.

Nevertheless, second-year Panthers coach Travis Cox maintains an upbeat attitude.

“I just try to stay as positive as I can with them,” he said. “I don’t do a lot of yelling or hooting and hollering. During the game I might do that, but outside the lines, before and after the game and at practice, I just try to have them understand that the conference we’re playing in, and how young they are.

“The team is about where I expect them to be. I lost eight seniors last year; four of them are college-bound players. Whenever you lose that many seniors at one time, especially at a school like this, you’ve got to expect a setback. I will say that this team is not the most talented, but they do work hard, they’ve got great attitudes and they only get better.”

Pitcher-third baseman-first baseman Christian Uribe, catcher Darius Wiley and outfielder-pitcher Katay Prear are the only seniors on this year’s squad.

“Christian is a really solid guy,” Cox said. “He’s a good leader by example, not really vocal but he just comes here every day and takes care of his business. He produces, and that’s all I can ask for.

“Darius has got some good leadership and some good toughness, and he’s just a hard worker. He’s a lunch pail, hard-hat kind of a guy. Prear was kind of a spot start last year, works hard and gets good grades. He’s another one, a quiet kid, but they come every day, they do what they’ve got to do and they don’t joke around. It rubs off on everybody else.”

Despite losing 15-5 to York on Monday, April 17, the Panthers do exhibit glimpses of competitiveness. They were leading that game 5-2.

“We were beating them and the next day we’re down 15 the first inning,” said Cox, referring to a 25-1 loss at York on Tuesday, April 18. The Panthers trailed 20-0 after two innings.

The Panthers’ lineup on Tuesday had freshman Damian Evans leading off, sophomore Samuel Holland batting second, junior Giovonni Dias hitting third, sophomore Alex Martinez in the cleanup spot, junior TeeJay Reynolds hitting fifth, junior Devon Head the No. 6 hitter, sophomore Brian Aponte batting seventh, Uribe hitting eighth and Wiley ninth.

“We played well Monday, Tuesday we didn’t, Wednesday we played well and Thursday (April 20, they lost 25-0 to York). But they’re starting to see the improvement.

“We’ve brought up some younger guys that are hungry. Now that they’re seeing that we’re playing some of these better teams in the state in this conference.”

One point Cox stresses to his team is not to beat itself.

“I always tell the kids that if they’re going to beat you, make them earn it,” he said. “It’s very hard to beat another team when you’re beating yourself—making mental errors, throwing the ball around, things like that. It’s very hard to beat one team let alone two teams—us and the other team.

“When I explain it to them that way, it kind of makes sense to them.”

The Panthers, like their District 209 counterpart, Proviso East, often have players join the team who lack fundamentals or competitive experience. It puts them at a disadvantage right off the bat compared to players on West Suburban Conference clubs who have grown up playing since they were small boys.

“That’s all we worked on in the winter time, even going into late March” said Cox, referring to fundamentals. “But we didn’t really have a chance to practice during the season because of all the makeup games. I think they’re getting the fundamentals down fine; it’s just more understanding the mental stuff, understanding the approach at the plate, understanding in certain situations where the ball needs to go. Make sure you back up the proper base (defensively), that sort of thing.

“I just emphasize to them that regardless of who you play, if you catch the ball and throw it where it needs to be thrown to, you’ll be in any game with anybody.”

Cox also tries to emphasize the importance of playing on travel teams not only to improve a player’s skill-set, but if they desire to play beyond high school. He notes that the amount of money parents invest in travel ball, though expensive, could very well pay off down the road because of the exposure players get to college scouts, which in turn could land them a scholarship.

“I can probably count on one hand how many kids I’ve got in the entire program that play travel ball,” he said. “It’s not that the kids don’t want to do it; it’s just the cost of it and getting the parents  to understand the investment because travel (ball), even when I was here (at Proviso West as a student-athlete) 10 or 15 years ago, it wasn’t as prevalent as it is now.

“Parents might think, ‘OK, if they’re just playing at the park, they’ll be seen.’ But it’s not like that anymore. You get a few parents that understand it and understand it’s an investment, but a lot of parents look at right now and not at the big picture.

“If you think about it correctly, you’re spending $1,000 (per year) with two or three years of high school playing (travel) baseball, but with them being seen, it you could be saving possibly $60,000 to $70,000 in return (with a scholarship).”

Cox, a 2003 Proviso West graduate, says he wants to take the baseball program “as far as it can go.”

“I remember when I was in high school (his senior year) that Proviso East made it to the supersectionals,” he said.

The Pirates beat St. Ignatius to capture a sectional title, and then dropped a 9-2 game to Mt. Carmel in the supersectionals—a step away from the state tournament.

“A lot of my friends played at Proviso East,” Cox said. “I think they had a .500 record but seeing some of their scores and how they were playing, if a team didn’t come ready to play, they would have got beat (by Proviso East). Being in such a tough conference, by the time the state playoffs came around, they were prepared. You’re not going to play tougher competition than this in the state.

“We’ve got the same kind of talent at the schools now; it’s just getting the commitment and getting them to just play more. We played more when I was growing up than these kids do now. That’s what the difference was. My goal is to get them (his players at Proviso West) to that point where Proviso East was back in the early 2000s. I don’t see why we can’t get to that point.”

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