By Bill Czaja
For The Rock River Times
Upsets in several NCAA conference tournaments have created a unique challenge for the Rockford Rivets in the opening week of their second season in the Northwoods League.
Automatic NCAA regional berths awarded to the winners of conference tournaments meant surprising title runs by several schools, including Iowa in the Big Ten Conference and Ohio in the Mid-American Conference, have made numerous players unavailable to the Rivets until the Cinderella stories play out one way or another.
That meant the Rivets opened the season Tuesday night at Kalamazoo with 20 players, rather than the league limit of 30. The situation won’t be resolved by the time the Rivets play the Wisconsin Woodchucks at 6:35 p.m. Thursday in their home opener at Rivets Stadium.
Just among the Rivets who hail from Division I schools, regional appearances by seven schools – Iowa and Indiana from the Big Ten, Ohio from the MAC, Illinois-Chicago from the Horizon and regional hosts Texas Tech, Arkansas and Louisiana State – have made one-third of the roster unavailable at the start of the season, including returning second baseman David Cronin. Cronin, the top returning Rivets hitter, has batted .320 so far for UIC, which was the Horizon tournament’s top-seeded team.
The Rivets’ top returning pitcher is with the team, and will get the start on Friday against the Woodchucks. Arkansas righthander Anthony Dahl was an injury redshirt this spring, but is healthy and, after this summer, will still have three years of eligibility with the Razorbacks, a perennial national-title contender. Given the level of his program, Dahl saw little use as a freshman last spring, but came to Rockford for the Northwoods League season and thrived. Dahl was 2-1 with two saves and a 1.18 ERA in 11 appearances, two as a starter. He struck out 41 and walked 11 in 38 innings.
Also returning is a player of interest to Stateline high-school fans. Jack Granath, who redshirted this year at Davenport (Mich.) University, is a Hononegah High School alumnus. He made two starts for the Rivets last year and was 1-1 with a 3.55 ERA.
While the roster might be a bit light early on, the Rivets’ promotional schedule is packed. Thursday’s home opener is the first of the weekly Thirsty Thursday drink specials. On Friday, Dental Dimensions sponsors the first of the Rivets’ five fireworks shows. AleFest (extra admission), featuring a selection of dozens of craft brews, will be at the stadium on Saturday. The homestand ends on Sunday with the first Bark In the Park. Pet parents are invited to bring their well-behaved pooch to the park.
Also on the promotional schedule are Ben Zobrist and Fred Van Vleet bobbleheads, laser light shows and an unbeatable deal on a four-game mini-plan. Fans can get a infield box seat for each of four games, all-you-can-consume grilled chicken, burgers, dogs, brats, popcorn and fountain soft drinks for just $50. And while supplies last, the Rivets will even include a replica team jersey in the Pub 815 4-Game Pack ($135 value).
For more information on Rivets promotions and tickets, call 815-240-4159 or visit RockfordRivets.com.
Alumni report: Texas Tech outfielder Hunter Hargrove, who joined the Rivets after the Red Raiders’ College World Series run last year, was named the 2017 Big 12 Conference Co-Player of the Year last week. Hargrove was batting .347 at the time and among the league leaders in average, hits and doubles. Northwoods League players must have remaining college eligibility, so Hargrove won’t be back in Rockford, where he hit .306 with eight home runs and a team-high 36 RBI in just 42 games last summer. R.
Bill Czaja is the Assistant General Manager of the Rockford Rivets.