Their 2017 title is their third in four seasons and comes after a big turnaround from last year when the team finished 14-11 and sixth in the GMC during coach Greg Leurck’s first year trying to fill the shoes of long-time skipper Bill Dreisbach.
“I think with Coach D leaving it was a little bit of a transition year, and we had to work hard with a new coach and the new team,” said Martin, a spot starter last year who now leads the GMC with 26 RBIs to go along with a .437 batting average. “The seniors got together and we knew we had to step up and we had to let the younger guys step up and make plays. Ever since the injuries, we’ve just been looking to the opportunity of people counting us out and us proving them wrong.”
Six players came up with injuries before the preseason, including five surgeries and a stress fracture. Four were players West had counted on as contributors this season that haven’t been able to play.
The team returned about 10 players from last year’s roster, including four starters, yet Leurck still had a surprising amount of confidence in the group.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but I felt good about the team chemistry and knew it was a tight-knit group,” Leurck said. “I told them, ‘People aren’t going to expect a lot out of you, so go out and shock them.’ I told them we could surprise people because of the team chemistry and how hard they were working.”
The Firebirds lead the GMC with a .350 team batting average, 193 runs and 76 stolen bases — the latter two by especially large margins. Bryce Johnson (.403 BA) follows Martin in the RBI leaderboard with 23, and pitcher Jacob Kates, in addition to an improved .406 average, has a GMC-best six wins to go along with a 0.38 ERA and 40 strikeouts.
An aggressive offense has led the way, but the Firebirds have shown they can win in different ways, Leurck said. Of the five GMC teams with a winning record, West has allowed the most runs (98), the pitching staff has a combined 3.58 ERA (sixth in the GMC) and the team is fifth in fielding with a .945 percentage.
“It’s been something different every day,” Leurck said. “(Monday) it was our hitting, base running and relief pitching. The game before against Sycamore, it was our defense, pitching and timely hitting. These guys are just finding different ways to win each game. If our hitting is going well, we’re not always playing great defense or the pitching isn’t as strong, or if we are pitching well, sometimes we’re struggling hitting but getting timely hits and bunts down and stolen bases. It’s really been a fun bunch to coach because they are doing what they are supposed to, and they’ve come together as a team.”