Turnover has never really been an issue for coach Donnie Chappell and the Rock Falls baseball team. Seems every time one strong core of players graduates, another steps into the vacuum and takes it place.
This season, Chappell wasn't quite sure what to expect. With just four seniors, the longtime coach knew his squad would have to rely heavily on some younger talent to fill in some gaps.
And while those younger players have indeed stepped up to the challenge, a couple of veterans have somewhat surprisingly stolen the spotlight at times throughout the season.
Senior Dallas Jones has helped provide some much-needed pop to an offense that, early in the year, struggled to score runs. Junior Cayden Erickson has done much the same, while also helping provide some depth to a starting pitching rotation that has blossomed since Big Northern play began last month.
"I think we expected a little out of Dallas, just because he was playing well at the end of last year," Chappell said. "We also knew that Cayden would give us some god at-bats and good innings.
"But Dallas' power has been big for us all year, and Cayden has just been huge, hitting and pitching. He's given us more than we thought; he's a first-team all-conference player, and we didn't expect that."
Like their coach, Jones and fellow seniors Austin Donoho, Trace Hippen and Dustin Huycke didn't really know what to expect when it came to all the younger guys being called up to contribute. But a savvy move by Chappell before the season started seems to have paid dividends when it comes to team chemistry.
"Donnie brought in us seniors and told us we had to be vocal leaders, and also set a good example every day, in games and practice," Jones said. "We had to show them how to handle themselves on and off the field, and w're all proud of the job we've done with that … and the job they've done, too."
It's a role Jones and Co. have embraced. Not only is the quartet natural leaders by example, but Jones said they've found the vocal part of the equation easy to adapt to.
"It was an easy role for us to take, and we were all looking forward to it." Jones said. "We've waited our turns, and now we're trying to fill the shoes of the seniors who set an example for us by doing the same thing for the younger guys this year."
That's the way Chappell has run things in Rock Falls since he took over the program in 1999. When the younger talent comes up to varsity, the veterans take them under their wings and show them the ropes. Then, when that younger talent becomes the experienced group, they return the favor for the next group of Rockets.
Erickson, who has two multi-homer games this year, is one of three juniors still in the middle of that transition period. Erickson, Dylan Abrams and Jacob Mammosser are not yet full-fledged senior leaders, but all are more than capable of providing guidance and assistance for the younger guys when it's warranted.
"It feels good to be able to help the young guys out," Erickson said, "but at the same time help send the seniors out with a good season. I've always wanted to do this, be a big part of Rock Falls varsity baseball, and watching the younger guys grow and seeing this team come together this year has been fun."
It wasn't so much fun at the start of the season. When the weather finally warmed up enough to start playing games, the Rockets (18-11) lost their first six.
"When you play baseball for Rock Falls, the expectations are high," Jones said. "You want to play with a chip on your shoulder, to prove you can live up to the guys who have come before you. Donnie talks all the time about pride, and we just had none at the start of the season."
"Early on, we weren't playing as hard as we should've been," Erickson added. "We were dogging it, and it showed in our record."
But then, something clicked. Rock Falls won 12 of its next 13 games, and 17 of 20, to earn the No. 1 seed at next week's Class 3A Sterling Regional.
The fix was as simple as the Rockets' attitudes changing from expecting to win just by stepping on the diamond to making things happen when they got there.
"We started giving it our all, and we turned it around," Erickson said. "Once we got it together, our pitching got a lot more consistent, and we started hitting the ball better, too."
"I think when we were 0-6, we realized we had to get our act together and start playing Rock Falls baseball," Jones added. "That was a wake-up call, and we've been rolling ever since that alarm went off. Now, we're hoping to ride that momentum into the postseason."