After only one season as a baseball assistant under current Basha coach Jim Schilling, Kraig Leuschner was hired to run Williams Field’s program before the 2011 season. With 58 combined wins the past three seasons, the Black Hawks are off to a good start again in Division II as they look to make a deep playoff run. Leuschner took a few minutes this week to talk about taking the next step, the brutal early-season schedule and his surprising junior class to go with some already-touted seniors.
Q: The Adam Donnenfield and Highland Triple Play Classic tournaments to start the season were loaded with Div. I schools. Was the tough competition early by design?
A: The construction of the schedule was based upon being ready for postseason. The schedule is so up and down, a Saguaro on a Tuesday and then a no-win team on Thursday. It’s hard for players and assistant coaches to stay up like that. We had five freedom games and two tournaments so the harder we could schedule early on, get the learning out of the way especially when you lose more than win. So we put the challenge games early and got through them. Corona del Sol, Sandra Day O’Connor, Mesquite, all of those tough teams, Perry is doing well, Highland is doing well. The concept was to show we’re not the kind of school to live behind a sometimes “false” curtain of wins and losses, but try and compete against top teams and get a better. We’re a good Division II but not quite ready for the Div. I level, and we kept ourselves humble in doing so.
Q: After an 18-10 record and missed playoffs in 2012 and 20 wins but a No. 18 seed last year, was the scheduling upgrades intentional?
A: The system is ever-changing and the not most transparent, kind of like the BCS. So to be a high seed sometimes you have to beat a good team early in the year. We’re gaining more with a loss to Hamilton than some of the wins. There’s a little bit of trying to protect a playoff run, but if you want to be the best you have to beat them. If you’re not trying to be the best what are you spinning your wheels for? I read a quote early in the year that every man deserves to be valued at his highest point. If you don’t give yourself a chance what’s the point? They said Hamilton quickly when we asked the kids who they wanted to play, and to Hamilton’s credit they were willing to play us. After that, you feel ready for just about everyone.
Q: The senior class has been strong as expected, but did you expect your junior class to contribute the way they have this season?
A: I walked into seven starting seniors when I got this job (2011) and one was a draft pick, some guys went to colleges (and junior colleges). At the same time, the freshmen class (current seniors Jeddediah Fagg, Chris Quackenbush, Brady Alexander, Conner Mathers, etc.) was hailed as a ‘can’t-miss’ group. As we’ve gone through the process, they’re skillful and exactly who we thought they were, we just didn’t know who else. Jaxxon Fagg and those guys we didn’t know and expect from the juniors, who’ve wound up contributing the way they have. Our leading RBI guys and average hitters and run scorers, a lot of them are juniors. Adam Lamb and Aaron Stretch pitching are juniors and we didn’t expect the team we’ve had in pitching or defense, and they’ve done a terrific job and turned some more heads. Now, people are saying they can’t wait until next year (senior class) when it was a couple years ago they said that about this senior class. It’s been a very nice eye-opener. There won’t be a drop off, and the senior class has remained every bit as good. as we expected.
Q: The schedule appears to soften a bit moving forward. How do you try and keep the players’ focus?
A: The challenge is going to be not getting snake-bit. We don’t want to drop a critical game and put ourselves out of a playoff spot, and each loss moves you out of the top 24 especially with 72 teams in Div. II. How can you make zero mental errors in a game you should win? How can you keep your focus against certain teams? Then when you face a Saguaro, can you go from seeing 70 mph to 88 mph with some of their kids and make the adjustments? The playoff loss to Queen Creek last year really stung. That hurt us, and a lot of these kids took it hard. That toughness at the end is what we want to have.
Q: Who’s playing well that maybe you didn’t know or expect?
A: The kid, Aaron Stretch, from Chicago. It’s not everyday an eight-win, sub-3.00 ERA kid shows up on your doorstep. We don’t call kids an ‘ace’ or put numbers next to their spot, but what Stretch brings to the table is more than pitching. He’s a phenomenal teammate. He’s not an ‘I’ guy. He’s made friends and exactly what you’d hope from someone coming from far away. He never shies away from preparation and is a ‘Yes, coach’ kind of kid. He gives us a little more comedy. He’s been great. Parker Behrmann is hitting .440 and he’s maybe 150 pounds soaking wet and handled himself with the bat against good teams. Adam Lamb is another 5-foot-8, 140-pound guy and he shut down O’Connor most of the day. We had seniors ready to take those spots and these kids came in and took the opportunity and capitalized.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.