For Lincoln Way North coach Mitch Nowicki, winning the Phil Lawler Summer League State Championship was extra special. Not because he knows he will have a great team coming back in the spring to vie for an IHSA State Championship, and not because as the #13 seed in their regional, they were underdogs and achieved something many people didn’t think was possible.
This title means something to Nowicki because it is the last one he will ever win as a Lincoln Way North coach. After the spring season is over, he won’t be back as the Phoenix head coach, and for that matter, none of his players will be returning either. You see, when the 2015-16 school year ends, the Lincoln Way School District will be closing Lincoln Way North High School due to budget issues. After this year, all LWN students will attend nearby Lincoln Way East.
“The team started hearing the rumors (about the closing) in mid-summer,” said Nowicki, the 3rd year head coach of the Phoenix. “The players didn’t talk a lot about it, but I think it caused them gel together more as a team and to play with more motivation. They were now playing for their school – for Lincoln Way North - and it meant something to them.”
Whatever it was that inspired the Phoenix squad, it worked. After the 2015 spring squad, ranked in some pre-season polls at #1 in the state, were ousted early in the play-offs, Nowicki didn’t have lofty expectations for his summer team. “It was a challenge coaching this past spring with all the pressures put on that team of ours, “Nowicki said. “Every Sunday I would receive calls from six or seven scouts wanting to know when this guy or that guy was going to pitch for us. It seemed like that was more important than us improving as a team.” Much of the talent graduated this past spring, but it was a blessing in disguise for Coach Nowicki and his staff. “Our summer team was so much more relaxed. We really re-focused on baseball fundamentals in practice and had fun with the game,” he commented. “I really believed that helped the kids better handle the pressures of play-off baseball.”
The Phoenix’s epic run at the title began with thrilling wins against Andrew 9-8 and Minooka 2-1 to advance through the always arduous Lockport regional. Both games saw Lincoln Way untie the contest in the seventh inning with some clutch hitting. Nowicki recalled, “the Andrew game was especially nerve-racking. We were up big and let up seven or eight runs late, only to get a big hit from one of our guys in the last inning to put it away.”
With their regional championship, Lincoln Way North moved on to the Pool Play Round of Eight hosted by Naperville Central and played at two sites: North Central College and Benedictine University. For Nowicki, a 2000 graduate of Naperville Central, it was like coming home. “It was special because I played for Phil Lawler, Bill Sieple, and Mike Stock (current Naperville Central Head Coach). Mike does an incredible job with the tournament and I consider him one of my mentors.”
Nowicki’s squad opened up State pool play at with big victories over Oak Park-River Forest 7-0 and Notre Dame 10-1. “I was very pleased with our pitching all summer,” said Nowicki. “We were able to throw many different kids in regular season summer games because of other commitments our starters had, and that allowed these other kids the opportunity to grow as pitchers. It really helped when we had to play play-off games every day.”
While Nowicki was impressed with his pitching, the play of one of his position players shined brightest for the Phoenix during their run. “Ben Troike is the life-blood of this team,” he commented. “He really took on a leadership role this summer and led by example. He didn’t miss one high school game all summer, even though he also plays on an elite travel team.” Troike, a University of Illinois recruit, hit .636 in tournament play and won the Jack Kaiser MVP Award as a result.
The Phoenix captured the title by defeating St. Charles East 5-4 in the semi-finals and upending Marist 2-0 in the final game. Pitcher Ian Vanwitzenburg picked up a save against St. Charles and hurled the complete game shut-out over Marist, while Tyler Strzelczyk and Jamie Quinn each supplied RBI in the championship game.
The school celebrated its team’s championship by hosting an all-school pep rally in the fall. “It was a blast,” said Coach Nowicki. “I had so much fun watching these kids grow.”
And another State title in the spring before Lincoln Way North closes down for good in the summer, Coach Nowicki? “Well, we really amped up our schedule in the spring and we have a really competitive conference, but…who knows?”