Chicago is one of coach Ken Henderson’s favorite spots to recruit, and two of his best hitters on the Salukis hail from the area.
For Chris Serritella and Jordan Sivertsen, their journey to Carbondale didn’t start until they were away from the Windy City.
Henderson said he didn’t scout Sivertsen until a high school all-star tournament held by scouting service company Perfect Game in Jupiter, Fla., while Serritella appeared on Henderson’s radar after a summer baseball camp at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Now that they’re both at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference in home runs, Henderson said he’s glad he didn’t overlook them.
The prospect tournament had attendants from most major college baseball programs along with scouts from some Major League Baseball teams and six featured current major leaguers, including Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Rockies pitcher Tyler Chatwood. Henderson said they mostly focused on teams from the Midwest, including Sivertsen’s Reds Midwest Scout Team.
“He stood out, even at a tournament with that kind of competition,” Henderson said. “We saw his bat speed and knew he had a chance to be pretty special offensively.”
Sivertsen pitched and played outfield for Carmel Catholic High School in Richmond, and he said a lot of teams wanted him primarily as a pitcher. According to Perfect Game, Sivertsen’s fastball topped out at 92 miles per hour.
He came to SIU as both a pitcher and an outfielder, but a shoulder injury in the fall of his freshman year in 2008 made Sivertsen focus solely on the outfield.
“It was more of a personal (decision) because I knew my arm just wasn’t the same,” Sivertsen said. “I still miss (pitching) now, and it kind of sucks, but I’m OK with it.”
While Sivertsen said he was better as a pitcher, he likes hitting more. Henderson said they wanted to use Sivertsen in both capacities, but since he recruited Sivertsen because of his hitting abilities, he wasn’t heartbroken when Sivertsen’s shoulder wouldn’t allow him to pitch anymore.
Henderson said they had to look a little harder for Serritella, who played in high school at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. Serritella wasn’t involved in a lot of the high school prospect showcases that Sivertsen played in, but Henderson said a high school coach who worked at the University of Illinois camp let him know about Serritella’s potential before his senior year of high school.
“He kind of flew under the radar. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good, I don’t think he got the exposure that a lot of kids got,” Henderson said. “It’s unusual because he’s a Chicago-area kid and usually those kids get so much exposure, but he didn’t.”
Serritella and Sivertsen were very similar initially because of their size and power, and Henderson said they both projected to be middle of the order hitters, although he couldn’t predict Serritella would become the offensive threat he is currently.
Serritella said he had a few schools in the area give him looks, including Illinois State University. But after the late coach Dan Callahan started recruiting him in the fall of his senior year of high school, Serritella looked into SIU and thought he would fit in perfectly.
“Once they offered me (a scholarship), I was just so excited to get a Division I scholarship,” Serritella said. “A couple weeks later, I told him I was going to commit, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Serritella and Sivertsen said their freshman year was a huge adjustment for them, although Callahan gave them both a lot of playing time. But while Serritella had a breakout season his sophomore year with 13 home runs and a .374 batting average, Sivertsen struggled to hit .207.
Sivertsen missed the fall of his sophomore season because of shoulder surgery in the summer, and he said the time missed caught up with him and he struggled.
Henderson said Sivertsen rededicated himself to baseball the following summer, and with Serritella breaking his wrist in the fall of their junior year, Sivertsen had a huge year offensively. The right-handed hitting outfielder hit .297 with a team-high of nine home runs and 48 RBIs.
“He really turned it around last year and became the kind of hitter we thought he could be,” Henderson said.
Despite the injury to Serritella, he was still drafted in round 31 of the MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. The Royals also drafted Serritella’s father, John Serritella, out of high school.
“The part about me getting drafted was the most exciting for him, and neither of us worried about what team it was,” Serritella said. “It was just weird that we got drafted by the same team.”
Serritella returned to SIU because he said he wanted to end his Saluki career on a better note, and so far he’s turned in his best year so far. Serritella hit his 10th home run in Wednesday’s win against Tennesee-Martin to along with a .384 average and 42 RBIs. Serritella leads the MVC in home runs, while Sivertsen is tied for second with eight.
“Getting Chris back in the lineup is good for (Sivertsen) because the middle of the lineup last year was a little short-handed for us, so it put a lot of pressure on (Sivertsen),” Henderson said.
Even though Serritella has one more year of eligibility because of his injury last season, Henderson said he’s approaching next season as though neither Serritella or Sivertsen will be back. Serritella said if he continues to have a good season and gets drafted high enough, he’s going to leave for the pros after this season.
Henderson said he’s confident they have enough offense currently on the team and with recruits he’s bringing in, but there’s no replacement for the kind of numbers Serritella and Sivertsen provide.
“We’re certainly not going to replace Chris Serritella,” Henderson said. “I’ve been coaching for 27 years at this level, and I tell people that in terms of just tools, the way the ball comes off his bat, he’s one of the top five guys I’ve ever had.”