Sometime in early May next spring, Ysen Useni will throw his first varsity pitch for Crystal Lake South High School, likely a fastball crossing the plate at close to 90 mph.
Useni would have been an integral part of the Gators’ rotation last spring for a team poised to make a run at the Class 3A Baseball State Tournament in Joliet, but the season was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled sports.
That did not stop the University of Illinois at Chicago from following Useni, a 6-foot-2-inches 225-pounder who has hit 91 mph, and offering him a scholarship. Useni, a junior right-hander, committed to UIC on Tuesday, making his announcement on Twitter.
“It’s close to home, it’s a good academic school and my sister (Yasmine) goes there,” Useni said. “I always knew I wanted to go somewhere close to home. They’re a solid baseball team. It motivates me more. I’m only going to get better from here on out, academically and with baseball.”
Useni’s family moved to Lake in the Hills after his freshman year at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. He was on the Hawks’ varsity team that season and UIC coaches took note. Useni also plays for Prairie Gravel’s 16U team, which draws top players from around the Midwest. Prairie Ridge High School junior shortstop-pitcher Braden Thelander also plays on that team.
“I’m really proud of Ysen and really excited for him to have the opportunity to commit early,” Gators coach Brian Bogda said. “Now he can enjoy his two years of playing high school baseball here. He’s a big presence with his stature, and he has the ability to play at that level. (UIC) saw him with his travel team and at the (Prep Baseball Report) event. He’s a big kid who can really bring it.”
South will have senior Dominic Guzman and Useni to top its rotation next season. Those two, along with 2020 graduate Jake Bimbi, would have given the Gators three pitchers who hit 90 mph, something Bogda says he has never had.
Bimbi will play at NJCAA Wabash (Indiana) Valley, and Guzman committed recently to Lake Land College in Mattoon. Guzman will play with several other local players, including Prairie Ridge graduate Keegan Garis, Jacobs High School graduate Bryan Belo, Marian Central High School senior Michael Aragon and Hampshire High School senior Ben Benoit.
Useni will be the first South player to go to an NCAA Division I school directly from high school since Ian Gardeck (Dayton) in 2009. Several other Gators have made it to D-I schools after going the junior college route.
“He also looks like he’ll be a pretty good hitter for us in the middle of the lineup, he'll probably play first base,” Bogda said. “He hits the ball well. He changes speeds very well and has good presence on the mound. I’m excited to get the chance to work with him at some point down the road here.”
Useni works with Prairie Gravel pitching coach Anthony Gomez. One program Useni has used with Gomez is throwing plyo balls, weighted balls designed to teach arm action and arm strength. Useni feels it has helped add to his velocity.
“We do a lot of lower half (of the body) drills,” Useni said. “When I pitch, I don’t think about trying to do stuff. I do drills to prepare myself so when I pitch, my body performs naturally so I don’t have to think about it.”
Useni is eager to be an ace for the Gators, alongside Guzman, who started as a sophomore.
“I want to be a dominant starter and go the whole game every time so our other pitchers can rest,” Useni said. “We have a bunch of good arms.