Chicago-Metropolitan's Des Plaines Patriots

Patriots are ready for the fight

Champions Chicago-Metro return to defend their title

By Brian Varmecky

Whereas most of the previous AAABA champions have breezed through the tournament with several convincing victories, the 2014 Des Plaines Patriots from Chicago outscored their opponents by a mere 9 runs, which is the lowest in tournament history. Their perfect 6-0 record included four consecutive one-run wins to end the week, highlighted by a thrilling 4-3 triumph over host Johnstown and a 5-4 decision over Philadelphia in the finals.

"We had a great offensive tournament," recalled general manager Michael Schultz. "A couple guys really lit up the leader board. Our pitching make some really big pitches and we played great defense. We really clicked and the guys had a blast. It was magical."

Little did the Patriots know that their 5-2 win over New Brunswick on Monday would be their most comfortable margin of victory. On Tuesday, they broke an 8-8 tie with 2 runs in the top of the eighth inning to hand New Orleans their first loss. Wednesday was a see-saw battle against Flood City won 9-8 by the Patriots. Despite a 4-run inning from Philadelphia after the stretch, Chicago held on for a 6-5 victory at Roxbury Park on Thursday. They then rallied for 4 runs in the final three innings to eliminate host Johnstown on Friday and won the championship Saturday against Philadelphia after the teams exchanges two runs each in the ninth.

"Once they got their confidence rolling, they really were unstoppable," said manager Zac Charbonneau. "Last year's team, from the first guy on the roster to the nineteenth guy on the roster, they all pulled on the same side of the rope. It didn't matter if they were starting or if they were coming in to be a pinch runner or out of the bullpen."

Reactions to championship back home in Chicago

While the news of their championship got swallowed up by the hustle and bustle of big city Chicago, the local baseball community did not overlook such as great accomplishment. Upon returning home, the team received many congratulatory phone calls and text messages from former Patriots players and other AAABA teams. Several local newspapers also ran stories on their local players who contributed to the championship.

"Throughout the college baseball community and even the high school baseball community in the Chicagoland area, it was pretty big news," said Schultz. "People in our league were ecstatic and real excited for us. For Len DiForte, especially, it was a big deal."

Len DiForte is the long-serving owner of the Chicago-Metropolitan franchise and president of the Metropolitan Collegiate Summer Baseball League of Illinois. Mister DiForte is a World War II veteran and father of 9 children, 25 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren. He has devoted much of his life to baseball and was inducted into the AAABA Hall of Fame in 2013. He was in town to watch Chicago beat New Orleans on Tueday and gave the team a heart-felt speech following the game. Due to his age, Mister DiForte could not stay for the entire tournament, but he was the first person that Schultz called after winning the championship on Sunday. Later, Schultz paid him a personal visit.

"My wife and I went to visit him and give him one of the trophy bats that we got. He was very excited and very emotional. He's been taking teams out there for nearly 30 years and the best they had ever finished was 2nd with a lot of middle-of-the-road finishes. [This championship] meant a lot to him," said Schultz.

Since joining the Association in 1987, Chicago-Metro has compiled a record of 33-34 in 18 tournaments. Adam Warnbach's Team Chicago-Northwest placed 3rd in 1989. The Glen Ellyn Jam led by Steve Hardman were runners-up in 2006.

Describing their tournament experience

While winning the championship is always the goal, teams also dream of playing night games against Johnstown in front of the large crowd. Chicago had that chance on Friday night and remained undefeated.

"Not many of the guys have played in front of a crowd like that before," said Schultz of the Johnstown game. "The energy the fans put into the ballpark when the hometown team was up at the plate was really exciting. Coach Charbonneau did a really good job of putting things in perspective for our guys and keeping them focused on just playing and not worrying about the noise or who we're playing," said Schultz.

Playing at Point Stadium is certainly a marquee attraction for teams, but their repeated trips to Johnstown over the past five years have allowed the Patriots staff to find many of the other hidden gems that come with playing in Johnstown.

"Playing at the Point in front of all the fans is awesome, but I actually like playing at the neighborhood parks a little bit better, because you get some of the local fans to come out and support not only the tournament, but they pick a couple teams to root for when Johnstown is not playing," said Charbonneau.

"Obviously Point Stadium is a great facility and the surrounding fields have a lot character and play really well," agreed Schultz. "Lilly is one of my favorites because of the ground rule meetings." Indeed, since the Lilly War Memorial Field lacks an outfield fence, well-hit balls can create quite a bit of confusion. According to Schultz, balls that hit a tree limb on the fly are home runs, but ones that bounce into the wooded areas are ground-rule triples.

"That's one of the fields where--if we're not playing in the main stadium--I hope that we're getting that field," continued Schultz. "It's a bit of a drive, but I really enjoy that one. They have the guy that's been announcing up there a long time, and he's a classic small town baseball announcer. He has the voice for it and makes comments after great plays and big hits and it's a really cool experience."

Finished second in league play

The Patriots placed second in the Metro League's East Division with a 17-7 record. The expansion Illinois Indians were half-a-game ahead. The Crystal Lake Cardinals won the Western Division and were also the 2014 NABF 22u national champions, giving the Metro League two national champions in the same year. While the league was very tough, scheduling the games was even tougher due to a particularly wet summer.

"The weather was the worst in my six years with the Metro League," Schultz lamented. "Every game we had scheduled, it seemed, was getting rained out. It was a really slow start because we weren't playing a lot of games, so guys were having trouble staying sharp. But the guys stuck it out and worked hard and really started producing."

In the year-end tournament, the Patriots advanced past Northern Knights in the opening round but lost to the eventual-champions from Crystal Lake in the semi-finals. While not making excuses, Schultz did explain that the Patriots were not fielding their best line-up for the post-season tournament. While teams in other cities often lose players to vacations, work schedules, or school activities, the Patriots and their compatriots in Illinois face a different kind of distraction.

"There's this big concert in southern Wisconsin called Country Thunder and every year our team gets decimated because of all these guys going to this concert," said Schultz, with a smile. The weekend-long concert event coincided with the league playoffs and many key players had already made plans to attend.

Many new starters this year

This year's edition of the Patriots are a younger stock than last year. Their roster is mostly freshmen and sophomores with only a few upperclassmen. Most players are from either Division 3 or junior college teams, although newcomer Matt Bell plays at Division 2 Palm Beach Atlantic. Pick-up player Reilly Peltier spent his summer with the Crystal Lake Cardinals, but is someone Charbonneau expects will attract the attention of scouts due to his strong defensive play.

Last year's fourth infielder Matthew Vitulli will be returning this year as a starter. The Triton College junior only played one game last tournament and was 1-for-5 against Flood City. Likewise, last year's #9 hitter Marques Winick (Case Western) has been promoted to lead-off and will be starting in centerfield. In 2014, he batted 0.300 with 6 hits and an RBI.

Colton Charbonneau (Robert Morris) is the team's starting firstbaseman. In last year's tournament, he was 4-for-8 with 2 doubles and an RBI. Relief pitcher Ricky Rogers (Morraine Valley College) is also returning and is expected to play a big role for the team this year.

Returning infielder Alex Strachota (North Park U) hit 0.333 last year, scoring 3 runs and 8 RBIs in 6 games. Eric Schneider (Stonehill College) played in the tournament in 2013, but missed last year with an injury. Charbonneau is happy to have his powerful bat back in the lineup.

Unfortunately, last year's tournament MVP Bronson Wittkamp is unable to return due to arm issues. Alex Boos lead the Metro League in hitting this season, but is also unavailable for the tournament, as he has returned to school for the semester.

"This year's team, with all the new guys, they're going to have to understand that they're getting a target on their backs," said Charbonneau. He pointed out, however, that the Patriots have consistently finished first or second in the Metro League, and so they are used to getting extra attention from opponents.

Charbonneau: "I think we've got a group that is mentally tough and they're not gonna let having a bull's-eye on their backs affect them. We're excited for the opportunity [to defend our championship] and we're gonna do whatever we can just to play baseball hard and smart and let the chips fall where they may."

Chicago-Metro has become a reliably competitive team in the tournament, and with a championship now under their belts, may start becoming one of the local's favorite teams, too.

"I think we've shown a lot of class when we've been out there and we expect that from our boys," said Charbonneau. "Hopefully that's paid off and we'll have a nice following that grows a little bit each time we come out."

 

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