Keeping up with ... Warren's Suzanne Gersich

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Climbing Mt. Everest and college softball wouldn't appear to have a common link.

Don't tell that to the Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks, who last Monday came within one out of earning the program's first NCAA Division III national championship.

"We have an inspirational theme for each season and that was what we chose for this year," said UW-Whitewater starting right fielder Suzanne Gersich, a Warren High School graduate who hit .405 with 13 home runs and a team-high 56 RBIs during her junior campaign. "The idea revolved around having to take it step-by-step to climb Mt. Everest. The season was our climb and we almost made it to the top."

Gersich and her teammates' title quest was spoiled in a 4-3 nine-inning title game loss to conference rival Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Whitewater took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh after Gersich's two-run homer in the top of the fifth, her 13th of the year, broke open a 1-1 deadlock. But the Warhawks couldn't hold on -- Eau Claire struck twice after two outs in the bottom of the seventh and eventually won with a solo home run in the ninth.

"For us to lose that game was pretty disheartening," said Gersich, one of five Warhawks named to the Division III World Series all-tournament team. "I definitely shed some tears but I bounced back pretty well. I'm a fairly optimistic person, so eventually I was able to shrug my shoulders and say, 'Let's get 'em next year.' "

The Warhawks (39-11) averted an early exit from the double-elimination event in Salem, Va., by stringing together four straight wins after losing their tournament opener to Cortland State. Gersich thinks nerves may have contributed to the team's collective case of big-stage jitters.

"We were kind of starstruck when we got to Virginia, trying to believe that we were one of the best eight teams in the country," she said. "We had to ground ourselves and remember what had gotten us there. We reminded ourselves of getting up Mt. Everest."

Playing for a national title was the last thing on Gersich's mind when the season began. The Warhawks, coming off an unspectacular 24-15 season in 2007, were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. They got off to a 9-3 start on their season-opening Florida trip and shortly thereafter Gersich noticed the team beginning to blend together.

"We've always had a lot of talent but it was us having to accept this year that we could come together as a team," said Gersich. "The camaraderie was great. We developed that winning mentality that we could conquer anything."

Gersich has enjoyed three prolific hitting seasons since arriving on campus. Despite relatively low expectations, she burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2006 by hitting .400 with nine homers and 35 driven in. Her average dipped slightly to .374 last year but she drove in five more runs and hit only one less home run.

She has started every game the Warhawks have played over the last three years and has another year to add to the mark she's already left on the program's career record book. She already owns the top spot in career homers with 30 and she's on pace to eclipse the all-time RBI standard early in 2009.

"I really didn't have any expectations for myself when I got here," said Gersich, who chose UW-Whitewater in part for the 75-minute drive her parents could make from the northern suburbs to see her play. "It worked out well because I wasn't worried about putting pressure on myself."

After hitting .400 as a freshman, however, expectations rose and she had to remind herself not to worry about individual statistics. As the lineup grew to include additional talent before and after her No. 3 spot in the order, she has also noticed a shift in how opposing pitchers threw to her. That was illustrated early in the season when she was intentionally walked and teammate Lauren Cruz (Maine West) made the opposition pay with a three-run homer.

"There's no need to worry about stats when you're winning and have great players around you in the lineup," she said. "Everything has a way of taking care of itself."

The Warhawks figure to be major players nationally again in 2009, as only one full-time starter departs. The returning nucleus has a decided Chicago flavor, as Gersich and Cruz are joined in the lineup by fellow suburbanites Amanda LeBeau (shortstop, Richards), Lauren Rankins (third base, Marengo), Ashley Smith (second base, St. Edward), Liz Yucuis (catcher, St. Charles East), Meghann Brennfleck (first base, Cary-Grove) and Nikole Schulty (pitcher, Woodstock).

The Warhawks expect for the long ball to continue to be a strength; this year's squad blasted 68 round-trippers, the second-highest season total in Division III history.

"As we were leaving the stadium (after losing the title game), all the people working at the World Series were saying, 'See you next year,' " said Gersich. "We're going to set the bar super-high (in 2009). We had a taste of what it's like this year and we know what it takes now to get to that next level."

• Syracuse fifth-year senior midfielder Steven Brooks (Libertyville) was a major component in the As the Orange won a record tenth national lacrosse championship 13-10 Monday over Johns Hopkins at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

In the title game, Brooks scored three points on a goal and two assists to help Syracuse (16-2) to its fourth national crown in ten years. The Orange outshot the Blue Jays 46-38 and expanded on a 6-5 halftime advantage to win comfortably down the stretch.

Brooks ended the season third on the team in scoring with 41 points (28 goals, 13 assists) and was named the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Midfielder of the Year last week, the sixth player in Syracuse history to be so honored.

Also in 2008, Brooks had five game-winning scores and was one of 22 players Tewaaraton Trophy, which is awarded annually to both the nation's top men's and women's college lacrosse player.

Brooks was in the starting lineup for Syracuse the last two years. He scored 29 points (17 goals, 12 assists) in 2005 as a sophomore and 26 points in 2007 (19 goals, seven assists) after red-shirting the '06 campaign due to injury. His three points in Monday's title game put him over the century mark for his career, with 101 points on 67 goals and 34 assists.

• The Mid-American Conference's season-ending baseball awards list, released last Tuesday, is littered with local products. Leading the way are two starting pitchers from Western Michigan, junior Ethan Hollingsworth (Plainfield South) and freshman Brian Stroud (Providence). Both were named first-team all-conference. Stroud, WMU's No. 3 starter, was also named the conference's Freshman of the year.

Hollingsworth served as the No. 1 pitcher for the Broncos (29-23-1) for the second straight season, compiling a 5-5 record with a 3.84 ERA. He fanned a team-high 77 hitters while walking only 26. This is his third straight all-MAC award.

Stroud won all six of his decisions and had a 4.02 ERA while striking out 53 and walking 32. He was particularly effective in MAC play, going 4-0 with 36 strikeouts and holding opposing batters to a conference-low .184 average.

Four former Chicagoans were honored for Northern Illinois (28-26), led by junior catcher Justin Behm (Downers Grove North), a first-team choice. Behm moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2007 and saw virtually all of his offensive statistics increase this year. He hit .273 with five homers and 22 RBIs in '07 and ended the '08 campaign Friday night with a .299 average, a team-high 11 homers and 42 RBIs (second on the team). Behm also had a 15-game hitting streak in April.

Two Huskies -- junior closer Andy Deain (Prairie Ridge) and senior starting pitcher Trevor Feeney (Joliet Catholic) -- earned second-team mention.

Feeney finished the year 6-4 with a 4.82 ERA, including a win in the Huskies' MAC Tournament victory last Wednesday over Ball State. He led the conference with three complete games and 7.56 innings pitched per start and fanned a team-high 55.

Deain ended the season 4-1 while leading the league with 35 appearances and 10 saves. He recorded seven of the saves during the final month of the season.

Also earning second-team mention was Kent State senior second baseman Doug Sanders (St. Edward). He helped the Golden Flashes (36-21) advance to the MAC Tournament final Saturday, which was won by Eastern Michigan 12-4.

Sanders led Kent State with a .377 average and also topped the squad with 83 hits to go with seven home runs and 43 RBIs.

• The list of the Horizon League's end-of-season baseball awards also has a local feel.

The lone first-teamer is Valparaiso senior outfielder Zach Rodeghero (Providence). He led the conference in hitting with a .418 average and his 92 hits set a school record. He also topped the Crusaders in runs (53), doubles (21), RBIs (54) and total bases (127); the 21 doubles is a school single-season record. Rodeghero also is one of 100 players nationally named to the Wallace Watch for the national Player of the Year.

Butler senior shortstop Joe Pauley (Notre Dame) and Illinois-Chicago junior relief pitcher Adam Worthington (Warren) earned second-team accolades.

Pauley, who was named Butler's MVP last week, led the Horizon League with 13 home runs and registered a team-high 51 hits, 42 RBIs and 38 runs scored while hitting .295 for a 12-34 team. For his career, he totaled 142 runs, eight shy of the school record.

Worthington finished 2-3 with a 2.98 ERA in a team-high 29 appearances and was named conference Relief Pitcher of the Year. He had a team-high five saves for the Flames (34-20) and fanned 36 with 14 walks.

Illinois-Chicago shortstop Rafael Garcia (Clemente) and Valparaiso reliever Steve Godawa (Buffalo Grove) made the All-Newcomer Team.

Garcia batted .301 in his first college season, starting 49 of 51 games. He also had three homers and 26 RBIs to go along with a team-high 26 walks. He hit .346 over the last 25 regular-season games.

Godawa allowed just one run in 11 appearances in conference action and posted a 0.84 ERA in 10.2 innings. Horizon League opponents hit just .128 against him. On the season, he finished with a 5.27 ERA and a 3-3 record in a team-leading 27 appearances. He struck out 17 in 27.1 innings of work, while walking only nine.

• UCLA senior Elizabeth Lumpkin (Naperville Central) played a key role in the Bruins winning their first-ever women's tennis national championship last Tuesday in Tulsa. The title was clinched with a 4-0 win over conference rival California.

Lumpkin didn't score in the title match but was leading her No. 5 singles match when UCLA secured the win. She clinched the Bruins' national semifinal win over Florida the day before, however, with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 win at No. 5 singles over Marrit Boonstra and also contributed by teaming with partner Stephanie Wetmore at No. 2 doubles in an 8-3 triumph.

Lumpkin was 24-1 in dual matches and 36-9 overall. She was undefeated in 16 matches at No. 5 singles. For her college career, Lumpkin, the only four-time Illinois girls state individual titlist, recorded a 67-13 dual match record and was 101-41 in overall singles competition.

• In the men's competition at the NCAA Tennis Championships last week, three former Chicagoans participated.

Advancing the furthest was Ohio State senior Drew Eberly (Lake Forest). He teamed with Justin Kronauge to play into the national quarterfinals, the best performance in history for a Buckeyes doubles team. The pair first defeated Tennessee's Kaden Hensel and J.P. Smith last Thursday 1-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6, (5) and ousted Florida State's Jean-Yves Aubone and Clint Bowles in the round of 16 the next day 6-4, 7-6 (3) before losing to Austin Krajicek and Conor Pollack from Texas A&M in Saturday's quarterfinals, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3. Eberly's 188 career doubles wins tied him for the most of any men's player in OSU history.

Also taking part in the doubles draw was Illinois sophomore Billy Heiser (Vernon Hills). He and his partner, Ryan Rowe, opened play with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over LSU's James Cluskey and Michael Venus but lost to Mississippi's Jonas Berg and Erling Tveit in the round of 16, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.

In singles, Vanderbilt senior Ryan Preston (New Trier) bowed out in the first round for the second consecutive season, losing 6-1, 6-3 to defending national champion and top-seeded Somdev Devvarman of Virginia last Wednesday. It was the third straight year that Preston played singles at the national meet, with his best advancement coming in 2006 when he made it to the second round. He played No. 1 singles for the Commodores the last three seasons and is one of only four players in program history to earn all-SEC honors three times, including first-team recognition in '06 and this year.

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