Less than two months ago, Naperville residents Tyler Hasper, Nick McKinney and Danny Riley were playing baseball for their high school teams, but after graduating and before college this fall, they're members of the DuPage Hounds.
"It's been great," said Riley, a catcher at Naperville North who will be playing for the University of Illinois Chicago. "I had planned on just catching other high school kids this summer … But this has worked out so well. It's definitely a step up. It's a lot faster than the high school game."
The Hounds, in the middle of their third season, are part of the Midwest Collegiate League. They play their home games at the Benedictine University Sports Complex in Lisle. The league is comprised mostly of veteran college players looking to continue working on their game in the summer while retaining college eligibility.
But Riley, McKinney and Hasper haven't even started college yet.
"The older guys, they've all been really good do us," Riley said. "They call me 'high school,' but they're helping us learn the game better. The chemistry on this team is great. It's a fun place to be right now."
The Hounds have a 21-8 record, putting them atop the standings of the six-team league.
McKinney, who pitched for Downers Grove South in their deep state playoff run this year, was late joining the team. He missed the month of June, but pitched his first inning last week and gave up no hits, struck out one and recorded the save in a win over the Joliet Admirals, 5-2.
"I had worked with the head coach, Sean Osborne, at the Perfect Swing Training Center in Downers Grove over the years," McKinnon said. "So when he let me know that they needed some more pitchers, I jumped at the chance."
McKinney, who will be attending Northwest Missouri State in the fall, is a sidearm pitcher — a rarity in today's game. He had been an outfielder until his junior year of high school.
"It's almost embarrassing to say that I started it almost as a joke in the bullpen," McKinney said. "I wasn't starting as an outfielder, so I had more time to play with it. I finally showed it to the coaches and they helped me develop it. So I quit hitting and decided just to see what I could do with it.
"I've only been throwing like this a little over a year and a half," he said. "So that's another reason I was so happy to join the Hounds — it gives me more of a chance to get work in. We play a lot of games, and for a late-inning guy like me, that means more work."
He's also noticed the big step up in talent from high school.
"The strike zone is smaller," he said. "You throw a fastball that's maybe half a ball off the plate, and you get that in high school. Here you don't."
Hasper, who pitched for Waubonsie Valley High School and will be playing for Heartland Community College in Bloomington this fall, agreed with McKinney.
"One thing you learn quickly is that everyone here can hit — there are no holes in the lineup," he said. "But the good thing is that the defense is strong. I like to attack hitters and get the ball in play. The defense behind me is very good."
Hasper, like the rest of the first-year players from Naperville, has enjoyed playing games in front of the big crowds at Benedictine University.
"It's awesome that we have the best fan base in the league," he said. "It's just a great stadium and a great atmosphere for a ball game."
Riley lives just a few miles from the stadium and said, "I've got my own fan section. I can't think of a better situation for me."
"It's different than anything I've ever been a part of before," McKinney said. "I know we're all lucky to have the support from family and friends who come to the games. I know I lucked out to be a part of this team that's so close to all the people I grew up with."
One other Naperville connection for the Hounds is Drew Sterioti, a Neuqua Valley graduate who just finished his first season at Eastern Illinois University. For the Hounds, Sterioti has played mostly third base and comes into the infield often late in the game as a defensive specialist.
"Defense is the strong part of my game," he said. "I've played more than I thought I would this year, and gotten a fair amount of at-bats … I'm just working at trying to become a better hitter and bunter. We're all playing really well, which makes it a lot more fun."
"Obviously we're all here to get better," McKinney said. "But you really are seeing some good baseball. I haven't been with the team as long as the others, but you can tell it's a great group of guys. And who doesn't like to win?"