Covering the Land of Lincoln

How Justin Gorski set Rockford Christian baseball for postseason run

ROCKFORD — Justin Gorski first fell in love with baseball working on his home run trot as a 6-year-old at Harlem Community Center.

“My dad used to take me down to HCC. He would throw me the ball and I would hit it. Probably not much out of the infield, but I would run around the bases like it was a home run and he would cheer me on,” Gorski said. “That’s what made it fun; working hard and having fun with it.”

Eleven years later, Gorski doesn’t trot around the bases. He races around them. He has raced all the way to an NCAA Division I scholarship at Miami of Ohio. And he and leadoff hitter Devan Bruggeman have formed a fast tag team at the top of the order that has helped Rockford Christian race to second place in the Big Northern (14-6, 13-4 BNC).

“I make contact a lot,” said Gorski, who is hitting .429 and has struck out only two times. “If I hit a ground ball, the defenders have to rush and sometimes make errors, or I will beat it out because I’m fast.”

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Gorski is a throwback in this age of launch angles and power hitting. But small ball works particularly well in high school, where teams make more errors and throwing arms aren’t as strong. And no one plays small ball better than Rockford Christian’s 1-2 punch of Bruggeman at leadoff and Gorski batting No. 2.

“Justin does everything that you ask for, especially with our small-ball approach,” Rockford Christian coach Mike Mather said. “We like to move the baseball and cut down on strikeouts. He has some pop, but he puts the ball in play, he can run and he is willing to lay down bunts if need be.”

And so does Bruggeman, who is hitting .442 with only five strikeouts. He is even more of a small-ball player than Gorski, with only two extra-base hits all year.

But with 18 steals — and Gorski hitting behind him — he doesn’t need power.

“Justin takes a lot of pressure off of me,” Bruggeman said. “I know even when I get out, he’s going to do something. One of us is going to do something every time we go through the order.

“I am a full contact hitter. I don’t have a lot of juice. But I can run the bases. Any single I get is pretty much a double because I am stealing bases. Me and Justin at the top, we make teams make plays. All we have to do is put the ball in play and we are hard to get out.”

The two are just as important on defense, manning shortstop and center field for the Royal Lions.

“Justin is getting to every ball in the hole,” Bruggeman said. “I can cover those gaps (in the outfield). Our speed definitely kills.”

Gorski has a big-time arm that allows him to play deeper than most shortstops, standing within a couple of feet of the outfield grass.

“He likes to play deep,” Mather said. “We’re trying to shorten him up a little bit to give him a little more time, but he has a very, very strong arm, so he can get away with it.”

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Gorski got his first college scholarship offer from North Alabama before the start of his sophomore season. “That was cool,” he said. “I was pretty excited for the first college to have an interest in me.”

Accepting an offer before his junior year even started this year from Miami marked him as one of the best players in the Big Northern. Only he doesn’t see it that way.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Gorski said. “I still have to work really hard to get to the next level and succeed.”

It’s hard to make it at the next level being strictly a slap hitter. Gorski isn’t. He may not hit home runs, except in his childhood imagination, but he has three doubles and four triples. And gets his biggest baseball thrill from hitting long line drives.

“There isn’t anything much better than when you drive a ball in the gap and get a double or triple,” he said. “You get to run a little bit. It’s fun.”

The whole Rockford Christian team has fun when Gorski and Bruggeman are on the run.

“It makes a lot of danger for our lineup,” Gorski said, “especially when we get to our bigger bats, Eli (Varble) and Andrew (Flynn). It gives them a lot of runners to drive in.”

The two hope to help Rockford Christian go on a postseason run, too. The Royal Lions are a No. 2 Class 2A sub-sectional seed behind Byron (17-7, 11-6), a team it swept 1-0 and 6-1. “That doesn’t make sense to me,” Bruggeman said.

Rockford Christian has had a winning record in the conference every year since it joined the Big Northern in 2013. It won the 2015 Class 2A state title and was 33-4 in 2016 when it reached the Class 3A sectional finals. But Rockford Christian had never won another regional game until last year. Now, especially with the recent return of Will Lavery, who was supposed to be the team’s top pitcher, the Royal Lions should be one of the favorites to win a regional title.

Their pitching has been especially good lately, allowing only one run in their last four games against Byron (twice), Lutheran and Winnebago.

“We can go far if we play well,” Gorski said. “We have a lot of potential with this team.”

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Especially with Justin Gorski.

“Everyone was saying he was the real deal, even as a sophomore,” Mather said. “There are going to be more schools looking into this kid. He’s going to get everything out of himself. He does everything a coach could ask for. He always has the same attitude. He never hangs his head. He never blames other people. He’s the hardest worker on our team. He’s always in the weight room, or taking extra swings, extra ground balls.”

And he’s true to his school.

An early commitment isn’t a binding commitment, but Gorski said Miami is his college. Period. Even if he gets drafted next year.

“The coaching staff is awesome there and when I visited the campus I fell in love with it,” Gorski said. “I really thought they could develop me, so why wait? I decided right away.

“And I am going to college no matter what. The draft is not an option for me right now. I just want to work hard in college and see where baseball takes me.”

Matt Trowbridge is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MattTrowbridge. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com.

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