His team having already locked up a state playoff berth, Wheaton High School baseball Coach Kip Frace continually emphasizes to his players that their biggest games are still ahead.
The Knights, 8-8 a year ago in Class A, could capture the AA title this season by winning four more games beginning with the regional semifinals Saturday.
But Frace warns: "One thing about the playoffs is one bad game and it's over." The Knights have had only bad game this spring, a 20-17 loss to Seneca Valley, and entered the final week of the regular season at 15-1.
"The one thing I'm happy with is that we're hitting the ball real well," Frace said. "We've also been playing pretty good defense. I'm happy with all phases of (our) game, but there's also room to improve."
The Knights have a .377 team batting average, a .927 fielding percentage and a 3.39 earned run average.
Keying Wheaton's success are brothers Randy and Craig Berlin.
Although Craig played a few games at second base, he didn't figure to be the starter when the season began. But because the incumbent, Danny Brewer, could also play left field, Frace let Berlin have the job.
That suited Craig fine, according to older brother Randy. "He (Craig) watched me play for two years," Randy Berlin said. "He couldn't wait to come to Wheaton."
Since he arrived, Craig has exceeded Frace's expectations. He has fielded well and is hitting .429 with three homers and 19 RBI. "He's doing a super job for us," Frace said. "I wasn't sure he was going to start."
Although Craig insists that they act more like teammates than brothers most times, Randy said there are some problems. "Whenever (Craig) messes up or I mess up, (we) get mad at each other," he said, adding that it "helps take pressure off the game.
"But," he said jokingly, "he also wears my socks."
Randy, a returning honorable all-Met, already has established himself as one of the top shortstops in the area. He is batting .481 with an on-base percentage of .526, 22 runs scored and 22 RBI.
"(They're both) real good ballplayers . . . they bring out the best in the other players," Frace said. "There's also the competition factor, but they don't want to outdo each other. They like to see each other do well."
What makes Frace ecstatic is the effort put forth by his two hurlers, Eddie Mahon and Brad Rippetoe. What was a bane last season is a boon this season.
Mahon's slider and improved control have guided him to an 8-1 record, with a 2.51 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 53 innings. All this despite giving up five earned runs to Seneca Valley in the 20-17 loss.
"(The season) started off great . . . now everything is falling into place," said Mahon, who credits Frace with teaching him how to stay ahead of hitters by analyzing their batting stance.
"I can feel towards the hitters by the way he stands in the box. If he stands back (in the box), I can throw my curve or slider. If he's up, I'll throw the fast ball right by 'em," Mahon said.
The transfer of lanky right-hander Rippetoe (5-0, 3.32 ERA) from Peary has also contributed to Wheaton's improved pitching. "He's got a pitcher's body," Frace said. "He's (also) got good pitching mechanics, which he learned from (his father) Ken (Rippetoe, the former Northwood baseball coach)."
Wheaton also got two other former Peary holdovers in Joe Comeau (.389), who is platooned in right field with Billy Frew (.471), and center fielder Jim Edwards (.286).
"We wouldn't be where we are without the kids from Peary," Frace said. "They've really made a contribution to the club."
Leadoff batter and third baseman Mike Horan, a sophomore, has hit for average (.400) and power (four homers, .860 slugging percentage).