Preseason Power 25 Countdown: No. 25 Normal West


By Andy Sroka
Illinois and Wisconsin Assistant Director

The Illinois high school baseball season kicks off on April 12, opening day for regular season action under IHSA regulations. Over the next several weeks, leading up to opening day, we’ll be publishing our team previews ahead of the 2021 spring season, touching on programs spanning all state classifications, leading into a countdown through the official PBR Illinois Preseason Power 25 Rankings.

Perennially, we’ve submitted a Preseason Questionnaire to high school head coaches across the entire state. Their responses have been flooding in and we’re using the detailed insight they’ve provided in our team-by-team preseason analysis.

Our 2021 preseason coverage continues today.

Team: Normal West 
Preseason Rank: No. 25 
2019 Record: 30-7
Conference: Big 12
IHSA Class: 4A
Head Coach: Chris Hawkins

TOP PLAYERS

NAME POS CLASS COMMITMENT
Nick Barlow RHP/OF 2021 -
Derek Durham OF 2021 -
Wyatt Inselmann RHP/INF 2021 -
Tanner Tompkins OF/RHP 2021 Concordia (NE)
Andrew Coats C/OF 2022 -
Clint Goodman 1B 2022 -
Bryant Henderson OF/RHP 2022 -
Eli Hensley INF 2022 -
Joe Jefferson INF/C 2022 -
Alex Willey RHP/1B 2022 -
Jesse Courtney RHP/UTL 2023 Illinois State
Mason Budzicky INF 2023 -

UNDERCLASSMAN TO WATCH

Heading this rotation will be sophomore right-hander Jesse Courtney, an Illinois State commit, who has a physical stature and his natural strength shows itself from both the mound and batter’s box. All signs point to him handling the transition to a varsity mound well – as there were indications he’d break into this team last year, in some form, as only a freshman. But Courtney’s skillset and advanced strength for a player his age also allows him to profile as a middle-the-order right-handed hitter, with the versatility to play multiple positions on the diamond, when he’s not pitching.

X-FACTOR

A dependable shortstop can set the tone for any team, and junior Eli Hensley is just that for these Wildcats. Hensley’s a natural defender, with quick and clean footwork paired with arm strength. More importantly, he’s the one player on this roster who’s previously earned regular varsity playing time. That’ll be critical, as he’s also expected to motor Normal West offensively and up the middle of the infield. From the batter’s box, he swings a smooth left-handed stroke that’ll spray line-drives around the diamond.

Eli Hensley (3/21/20)

OUTLOOK

The Wildcats have built one of Central Illinois’ most perennially competitive programs, as conference champs in 2018 and 2019 – and regional champs since 2017 – their 2021 unit is no exception. While they graduated a large, talented Class of 2020, their inexperience inside this year’s daily lineup will mean a little less, considering there are few teams in the state who can consider returning varsity contributors as a squad strength in a unique season.

And they can consider their two most important positions covered: shortstop and No. 1 arm. We named Hensley the team’s X-Factor, as he’s the one player on this roster accustomed to the speed of the varsity game, and the sophomore Courtney is the ‘Underclassman to Watch,’ but let’s see who’s expected to surround these two.

Normal West should be well-covered in the starting rotation after Courtney. Senior Nick Barlow is another two-way talent who should offer his team quality innings, and he’s otherwise the team’s everyday right fielder. A 6-foot-5 junior, RHP/1B Alex Willey, has the stuff to jump into a prominent role on this staff. He was up to 85 mph in February, with the makings of a viable breaking ball and a deceptive straight change.

Fellow junior RHP/OF Bryant ‘Patch’ Henderson has breakout potential for these Wildcats, as another vital two-way player who we just saw recently at the Joliet I.D. There, Henderson sat 80-81 mph with the fastball while featuring an upside slider – and he repeats a loose right-handed swing well, inside a projectable 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame.

Bryant Henderson (6/23/20)

At that same showcase, junior C/OF Andrew Coats stuck out as a follow ‘22. He reached a max exit speed of 93.8 mph from the right side, built at a compact/strong 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. Coats looks like a capable defender behind the plate, giving the Normal West a reliable depth behind the plate, alongside senior starter Tanner Tompkins (Concordia, NE). Tompkins will be relied on as one of the team’s best players, but the emergence of juniors like Henderson, Coats, Clint Goodman, and Joe Jefferson combines to create a deep lineup that’s looking like its strength on paper.

Jefferson is another Joliet I.D. stand-out; his short, strong right-handed swing showed as his best tool at that late March event, and it should extend the Wildcats’ order even further. He, too, looks like he could be a long-term fit behind the plate, but he was equally able on the infield, and projects to earn more regular playing time as this team’s third baseman in 2021.

Seniors Derek Durham and Wyatt Inselmann – and maybe even sophomore INF Mason Buzicky – reinforce the order, solidifying a sturdy Nos. 1 through 9 without much give to opposing pitching. That, combined with traditionally fundamental defense, should mold this Big 12 heavyweight into a familiar force.

BOTTOM LINE

Quality coaching, a senior foundation, junior depth, and an impact sophomore have Normal West looking like a Central Illinois threat yet again. The lack of varsity experience is less meaningful in a season in which few teams will roster players with previous playing time at this level, and it’s tough to bet against a program that’s so used to getting the most out of each other. Count on Normal West to be lurking in the postseason again later this spring.

Make sure to follow @PBRIllinois on Twitter for the most up-to-date coverage throughout the 2021 season.

Find more information on the 2021 Wildcats below:

+ Team Website

+ Team Schedule

+ Team Twitter

PBR ILLINOIS PRESEASON POWER 25