Top-10 Stories of 2018: No. 7 Neuqua strings together 22 straight wins


By Andy Sroka
Staff Writer

In consecutive springs, the Neuqua Valley Wildcats put together lengthy win streaks that helped them stay glued atop the Power 25 rankings for a significant chunk of the season. In 2018, Neuqua won its first 22 games of the season. Their first loss came on May 7, in a 4-3 defeat to Wheaton North.

Their 22-game win streak is our No. 7 story of 2018.

The Wildcats rostered one of the state’s most complete lineups and pitching staffs, which made them favorites headed into the postseason after earning a DuPage Valley Conference title. With the likes of LHP James Kulak (Purdue), RHP Ricky Castro (Parkland JC) and RHP Anthony Sterchele (Sante Fe JC) on the mound and SS Ryan Wheeler, 3B Noah Herdman, OF’s Evan Ranneklev (Illinois Wesleyan), Jack Rigoni (SIU-Edwardsville) and Trevor Tesmond in the field and the lineup.

All of the aforementioned players were seniors and their experience must have played an important role in the team maintaining the composure to put together a win streak like this in back-to-back seasons. Neuqua were ousted earlier than they had hoped in the postseason in the Sectional Final, but their opponents were Plainfield North, the eventual state champs.

With all of the graduations on the roster, and a new face at the head of the program, Neuqua will have a lot of ground to make up next spring, but it’ll be exciting to watch this team attempt to put together another win streak like the ones they’re growing used to.

2018 PRESEASON PREVIEW

+ No. 2: Neuqua - The Wildcats propelled themselves in 2017 from unranked in the preseason all the way to a 35-2 season (21-1 in the DuPage Valley Conference) that ended in a heartbreaking super-sectional loss to St. Laurence. That end-of-the-season loss serves as motivation to a large number of returning starters, including 2017 all-conference selections Noah Herdman, James Kulak, Evan Ranneklev, Jack Rigoni, and Ryan Wheeler. Despite the amount of on-field experience returning to the Naperville high school, the Wildcats will have to deal with some key losses, especially the hole at shortstop left behind by James Gargano, who graduated and will be playing his baseball at Butler University this spring. Wheeler is the likely choice to fill the void at shortstop.

Still, having a lineup led by Wheeler, Herdman, Rigoni, Ranneklev, Tesmond, Wenz and with a rotation headlined by Kulak, there is reason for Neuqua Valley to dream on repeating as conference, regional, and sectional champs with a shot at super-sectional redemption.

Last year, Neuqua Valley’s exceptional defense helped the team to its 35-win campaign and the number of starters returning should keep its glovework intact. The trio of returning all-conference starters should shore up its lineup, too, but questions pop up after the Purdue commit Kulak's spot in the rotation. Those questions are likely to be answered by senior RHP Ricky Castro, a Parkland commit. Some other options in the rotation will be senior RHPs Andrew Churchman and Noah Ernst along with 2019s Casey Pickering and Karaba. A sleeper to the staff could be junior Anthony Sterchele. Sterchele is a 6-foot-5, 200-pound, right-hander who can run his fastball into the upper-80s.

FINAL ILLINOIS POWER 25 RANKINGS

+ No. 5: Neuqua (31-4) - The Wildcats led by head coach Robin Renner, in his final season at the helm, never found themselves outside of the top two in the power 25 until now. The Wildcats headed into the postseason as one of the favorites to win it all in 4A but were ousted by Plainfield North in the Sectional Final. Despite the earlier than expected exit, Neuqua had an extremely impressive regular season which included winning the DuPage Valley Conference title with relative ease. Coach Renner’s club started off the season with 22 straight wins and held the No. 1 spot in the Power 25 for several weeks. The Wildcats were not only deep on the mound, they had top end arms as well, led by seniors LHP James Kulak (Purdue) and RHP Ricky Castro (Parkland JC). At the plate and in the field they were loaded with talented seniors, led by SS Ryan Wheeler, 3B Noah Herdman, OFs Evan Ranneklev (Illinois Wesleyan), Jack Rigoni (SIU-Edwardsville), and Trevor Tesmond, among others.

TOP STORIES OF 2018