The St. Paul The Apostle School family was devastated.
Similarly, the entire Joliet community.
Five-year-old sisters Makayla and Addison Henning were excited about starting kindergarten at St. Paul. Then came the news. The girls were victims in a murder-suicide.
St. Paul baseball coach Mike Melone and his team were among the heartbroken. They wanted to do something to preserve Makayla’s and Addison’s memories.
“We got together as a team, trying to think what to do,” Melone said. “We decided we would wear two angel pins on our hats this season.
“We attended the girls’ wake collectively, and we talked to their father, Steve. We decided after talking with him that we would dedicate our season in their honor. The kids said they were going to win state for them. He felt honored. He was very overcome with emotion.”
THE MEMORY BOX
The team then decided on an additional tribute. They had a No. 1 St. Paul jersey made with the girls’ names on it.
“Being a Catholic school, we pray before every game,” Melone said. “After we prayed, we talked about girls, expressed what we felt.
“During the games, we hung the No. 1 jersey in our dugout. The kids saw the jersey every time they’d go on the field or come in. And every time we had a team picture taken, they displayed the jersey.”
The Giants won the Illinois Elementary School Association Class 1A state championship in October, after which Melone talked with Steve Henning about a memory box the team was putting together for him. The memory box consists of the jersey, two angel pins, Makayla’s and Addison’s state championship medals and a team picture following the state championship victory.
“Steve asked if we could put it on display at school instead, so Makayla’s and Addison’s memories could live on forever in our school family,” Melone said. “We put it in the trophy case with our state championship trophy.
“It is great for all of us to be thinking about the girls, and I think the display reflects well on the entire St. Paul community.”
THE STATE TITLE
With Makayla and Addison on their minds and in their hearts, the Giants played like champions with a cause all season. They finished, 19-1, and beat Monmouth Immaculate Conception, 15-0, in the state championship game.
St. Paul fell behind Peoria Limestone Walters, 5-0, in the first inning of the semifinal game and wound up winning, 13-5. The Giants were down 2-0 in the first inning of their quarterfinal against Louisville North Clay and rebounded to win, 6-3.
Deficits did not matter with the way the Giants hit the ball.
“This team put on a show with the long ball at state,” Melone said. “We hit seven homers in three games. We wound up breaking or sharing 14 team state records and 10 individual state records.”
The St. Paul roster included Will Gimbel, Jackson Cullen, Cooper Ohlson, Ryan Louthan, Zach Bebar, Noah Benton, Max Buza, Finnegan Eleveld, Jake Gahan, Martin Guzman, Grant Hertzmann, Jarron Hinchliffe, Brandon Kowall, Graham Roesel, Jimmy Sharp and Jake Gimbel. Catherine McGinnis was the team manager. Pat McGinnis and Brad Offerman coached with Melone.
Ohlson either shared or broke all 10 individual records. He hit three homers in the three games at state to share that record. “He actually hit four but he missed home plate on one, and they caught it,” Melone said.
Louthan and Cullen also have their names in the record book.
“This team played well offensively,” Melone said. “We had some struggles early in the year, but by the time we were at state, they figured it out.
“We had everyone but two eighth-graders back from last year’s state runnerup team, and our philosophy, well, we talked about unfinished business.”
The state title was St. Paul’s sixth, fifth in Class 1A, since the IESA went to a three-class system in 2006. The other was in 2A. The six championships are the most of any team in the state since 2006 and tie Minooka and Troy for the most state titles behind East Peoria Central’s 10 since the IESA began baseball in 1958.
State Rep. Larry Wash Jr. (D-Elwood) recently recognized the team for its accomplishment. Recognition will continue Jan. 21 when the Giants are feted at the Chicago Pitch & Hit Club awards banquet at the Tinley Park Convention Center as the organization’s youth baseball program of the year.
“What is really gratifying is if you look back at St. Paul’s history, there have been a lot of good high school and college players, and kids who have been drafted, who came out of this program,” Melone said. “As small as we are, it’s a pretty impressive point of pride that guys like [former Joliet Catholic Academy star pitcher] Kevin Duchene and [former Providence Catholic standout shortstop] Branden Boggetto played here and were drafted.”
So, off this team, which local high school teams will benefit from the talent influx?
“I went to Providence and my kids went to JCA,” Melone laughed. “I try to stay out of that. We probably will have some going to JCA or maybe to Providence or Joliet West. I do know we have one kid who is going to St. Rita.”
Regardless of where their baseball lives lead, members of the 2017 St. Paul baseball team will have lasting memories of the season they won the state championship for Makayla and Addison.
A job well done.
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.