SPRING VALLEY — Chicago Cubs fans heard all about the Core Four coming up through the farm system with talk how Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javy Baez and Albert Almora would lead the Cubbies to the Promised Land.
It was a promise fulfilled with those four contributing to the Cubbies’ first World Series championship in 108 years in 2016.
Two years before those Cubbies made their splash, Hall High School coach Tom Keegan was making similar plans to Cubs mastermind Theo Epstein.
He brought up three freshman to the Hall varsity in 2015 — Brant Vanaman, Cam McDonald and Ty Rybarczyk.
Keegan finished the Red Devils’ Core Four a year later with the addition of freshman Jimmy DeAngelo.
It was a core of four players Hall or any other area program has perhaps ever seen.
“They were there to make the most competitive team. Sometimes it’s just a crapshoot to bring up freshmen, and there are other things with the physical ability, but those guys emotionally and mentally could handle it,” Keegan said.
“And that was a big part of it, not only that they were good, but were socially mature, too.”
Like the Cubs, Hall’s Core Four made their dreams come true by taking the Red Devils to the Final Four and beyond, winning the Class 2A State Baseball Championship. All four Red Devils contributed greatly to the cause. And all four agreed they couldn’t have done it by themselves.
For those reasons, they share 2018 BCR Players of the Year honors.
“Something we talked about before the season — leave a legacy, and man, they did,” Hall coach Tom Keegan said. “It is no coincidence it happened. They’re talented kids for sure, but talent alone is not going to cut it. When you get to the next level, all talented kids are a dime a dozen. They have the work ethic, the desire, the drive to use those talents kind of as a separator for what they’re going to see down the road.”
The players are still letting the state championship all sink in.
“It’s still thrilling, but I feel like we’re still in season, still playing, because I mean, we’re still together, feels like. I’m just still trying take it in,” Vanaman said.
None were surprised they could win state, and wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other group of guys.
“With the work we put in, I’m not surprised. It was meant to be done,” Vanaman said.
“It just shows hard work pays off. Great group of kids. ... That’s my family. I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else,” Rybarczyk said.
“i’ve been playing with these guys since I was 7 or 8 years old, and we’ve always been close. To do it with them was really special,” McDonald said. “Last year after we won regionals, we got real excited and still hyped that we did it. This year, we had like a different vibe. We celebrated and stuff, but the next day it was back to work.
“Even after the semifinals game, we were all like, ‘Yeah this is great and we’re excited,’ but we wanted to win again. We were still hungry for more. We wanted to win it all.”
Players of the Year
Vanaman, the reigning player of the year, put together another MVP caliber season. He was, once again, the BCR Triple Crown winner, and then some, leading all area batsman in average (.538), homers (10) and RBIs (59) as well as doubles (18) and triples (6). For good measure, he added 26 steals.
He will forever be remembered for his towering blast in the super-sectional over the batter’s eye screen in center field at Augustana College, estimated to be some 440 feet away.
The word Keegan uses to best describe Vanaman is consistency.
“The body of work that he produced over his career was incredible. His demeanor was never too high or low. Just went about his business in a workman like way,” Keegan said.
The Illinois Coaches Association First Team All-State and TRAC East unanimous all-conference catcher will shift to the outfield for Kent State University next year.
McDonald had another big season at the plate and in the field, and proved to be an invaluable asset on the mound, especially in the postseason.
The tall, slender middle infielder was next in batting behind Vanaman at .466 with 48 RBIs, 12 doubles, three triples and an area-best 36 steals.
He was also on the mound for the final outs of the sectional, super-sectional and state championship victories. On the year, he went 4-0 with a 1.45 ERA.
“His numbers speak for themself. More importantly, he has a huge motor for the game and infectious energy that spread through the team,” Keegan said.
Like Vanaman, McDonald will also play at the Division I level for the University of Illinois next year.
Rybarczyk was the senior ace of the staff, always counted on for big games, taking a confident mind set to the hill to post regional and sectional championship and state semifinal victories. He spun a 1.26 ERA with a 7-2 record and 72 strikeouts in 50 innings.
The leadoff man set the table for the big boppers, batting .382 with an area-high 55 runs scored, while driving in 31 runs with 12 doubles and four triples. He also found great pleasure when he muscled up for his first career home run.
“Ty’s a emendous competitor with a great deal of self confidence that served him and us well in key spots,” Keegan said.
He will be pitching for Dave Garcia’s Parkland College Cobras next year in Champaign.
DeAngelo was a contributor at both the plate and on the mound. He batted .465 with 48 RBIs, 12 doubles, two triples and 26 steals. He was unbeaten in eight decisions, posting a 1.80 ERA with an area-high 76 strikeouts in 54.1 innings.
The junior right-hander was the winning pitcher in the state championship game, joining his father, Mike, who played on the 1988 St. Bede Bruins, as a state champion.
“Jimmy combined poise with a bulldog mentality on the mound and delivered at key times this year,” Keegan said, noting all four came through in the clutch at bat or in the field.
DeAngelo, who is being recruited by Eastern Illinois, said he’s going to miss all the seniors, “and it was a true honor to lace up the cleats with those guys, and I wish them nothing but the best and hope they all succeed at the highest level possible.”
When asked about turning points of the season, Vanaman said it really started with the first day of practice, but the sectional finals win over Alleman was pivotal.
“We had a goal to do and couldn’t slack off. Every drill we did, even starting with warm-ups, had to be 100 percent,” he said. “I think when we beat Alleman, it set a tone. To be honest with you, they were chirping they were the best team in the state, but we proved that pretty wrong.“
DeAngelo pointed to the North Boone game, which saw the Red Devils escape with a 12-11 win, with the Vikings scoring four runs in their last at-bats before leaving the bases loaded, as being a crucial one.
“If we would’ve lost, that would’ve been a pretty bad deal. I would’ve felt like it was my fault,” he said. “I didn’t get out of the fourth inning. With two outs, I struck out with bases loaded. Going into the bottom of the seventh, I would’ve felt like it was my fault.”
As the good team player he is, Vanaman was quick to have his teammate’s back.
“As a team, though, we left 16 on base, so it was everyone’s fault,” he said.
Rybarczk said it was definitely a good wake-up call.
“It woke us up a little bit. ‘Hey we got to go. We can’t just expect to win every game.’ I mean, we do expect to win every game, but we have to play at the top level,” he said.
McDonald pointed to the Joliet Catholic game as being a big impetus going into the postseason. Though they lost 3-2, the Red Devils came to life after a lackluster 1-0 loss to Plano.
“We were down 3-0 and strung together those hits. It was a real good pitcher on a real hard day to hit. I felt like if we didn’t score that day, because the day before we got shut out by Plano, going into the postseason with two shutouts, that wouldn’t have been good,” McDonald said.
“The North Boone game was big, too, because we started swinging. We didn’t swing very well against Princeton or Kewanee very well (at regional).”
Toast of the town
The Red Devils have been the toast of the town the past week with generous hospitality by many local businesses, including Tastee Freeze, Rips, Alfano’s Pizza and Verucchi’s.
It’s all been well appreciated.
“That’s real generous. It shows our community really cares and everyone is behind us,” Vanaman said.
Keegan said the Core Four have been a coach’s dream, not only fulfilling their dream, but setting up future Red Devils to make dreams for themselves.
“They’ve kind of spoiled everyone, for sure,” he said. “Now it’s Jimmy’s turn. He kind of saw what those guys did, everyone on the roster did. The challenge has kind of been thrown at them. Are we going to be competitive in the postseasons to come, or just going to be a one-hit wonder with some really good guys, or are we going to commit to it, year in and year out, to make the postseason push?”