Chris Shields first began playing baseball with Joch Martin at age 10 when he tried out for a team coached by Martin’s dad.
“It was pretty stacked. John Miles, Jeff Lower, Todd Zimmerman. Lots of kids who would go on to be the core of our 1990 Harlem team,” said Shields. “And then there was Joch, who was probably the best pitcher in the Midwest at that age.”
By the time Martin and Shields got to Harlem as freshmen, they knew they’d have a pretty good baseball team.
“We go out for tryouts and Dave (Rydberg) showed up,” Shields said. “He grew up in Beloit and he’d moved into the Harlem district. So he just fell into our lap … and he was spectacular.”
“I became friends with Dave in swimming class. I didn’t know he played baseball,” Martin said. “Then he came out for the team and we played our first intrasquad game and he just crushed everything.”
Two years later, that trio would power Harlem to the first of back-to-back state playoff runs in baseball. No team from the NIC-10 had made it downstate in baseball since 1971, and no school before or since has gone to state two years in a row.
Although Harlem had a number of excellent players around the “big three,” their combined talents were the reason they broke boundaries.
Shields was a catcher and a pitcher.
“Joch’s the reason I started catching,” Shields remembers. “I was playing first base (before Harlem) and our catcher got hurt and no one else wanted to catch his curveball.”
And Martin also was the reason Shields started pitching.
“Our (youth league) team split up one summer and the team I was on needed pitching so I gave it a try,” Shields said. He’d end up pitching NCAA Division 1 baseball for Stetson and Xavier.
Martin was a pitcher and an overall athlete who played third base, shortstop and centerfield for Harlem.
Rydberg helped out on the mound but mostly played shortstop.
“David was intense. He gave us an attitude. He was also the best hitter,” Shields said. “You could not throw the ball past him.”
In 1989, the trio helped Harlem finish fourth in the NIC-10 with an 11-7 record. Rydberg, who hit .400 as a sophomore, was second team all-conference. Martin and Shields were honorable mention at third base and pitcher.
The 1990 team became the first in conference history to go undefeated in conference play. Guilford had gone 17-1 in 1984, Boylan was 15-1 in 1975 and East was 13-1 in 1970.
“I know we went undefeated, but what I remember is how tough the conference was back then,” Shields said. “Every team had at least one good pitcher and a couple of hitters you had to watch out for.”
Harlem had a number of laughers. Five of the 18 NIC-10 wins were by 10-run rule. But they also blew an eight-run lead to Guilford and had to win 11-10 in extra innings and struggled to beat last-place Auburn, 3-1.
“If I had to pick a favorite game, it would be the Hononegah game at Hononegah,” Shields said of their 4-0 win on May 7, 1990. “Joch was throwing a shutout, but he walked the bases loaded in the seventh so coach (Don) Tresemer brought me in and I struck out the side.”
In the 1990 regionals, they again edged Auburn, 2-0, and then beat 9-12 Freeport just 1-0 on an unearned run in the seventh inning. After a laugher against Ottawa, Martin had the game-winning RBI in a 4-3 win over Peoria Notre Dame to send Harlem to state for the first time.
The stay didn’t last long. They played tight, committing four errors and losing to Joliet Catholic, 10-3. Rydberg hit .500 for the year. Shields went 9-1 as a pitcher. The two shared MVP honors in the NIC-10. Martin was 5-1 as a pitcher and hit .349.
The 1991 squad wasn’t as deep. Harlem somehow lost to last-place Jefferson in its fifth conference game of the season and later lost a 7-6 classic in nine innings against Guilford. In that game, Marc Theien, now a financial adviser at Northwest Bank, threw out Harlem’s would-be winning run at the plate in the bottom of the seventh and hit the game-winning home run in the top of the ninth.
Still, Harlem won the conference title by four games over Guilford and Belvidere and had one three-game stretch in which Martin and Shields gave up four hits over 17 innings. They sailed through the regional, winning every game by five or more, and then crushed Peoria Notre Dame, 10-0, to get one step away from state.
“The sectional final against Rock Island was my best memory,” Martin said. “I pitched and had the go-ahead homer.”
Indeed, Martin went the distance in the 3-2 win, improving his record to a school-record 13-0.
Unfortunately, the win earned them a game in Peoria against defending state champion Edwardsville, which was 38-0. Harlem put up 12 hits but lost 11-6. Shields, who was the loser against Joliet Catholic the year before, also took the loss against Edwardsville. He was 17-2 his junior and senior years with both losses coming at state. Martin was the runaway conference MVP. Harlem’s record over the two years was 32-2 in the NIC-10/NIC-9 and 47-6 overall.
The trio split up in college.
Martin drew a ton of interest from pro scouts, but he told them he was set on playing baseball at Eastern Illinois. The Houston Astros still drafted him in the 60th round to control his rights. Martin had a solid four-year career at Eastern, hitting .276 over 117 games.
“I was having a really good sophomore year when I separated my shoulder sliding into home plate,” Martin said. “It took a long time to really get the strength back. My junior year, I started to realize that college was going to be it for me.”
Rydberg, who I was unable to reach for this column, went to the University of St. Francis, an NAIA baseball power in Joliet. His name is all over the school’s record books. He’s third all-time in runs scored and doubles, seventh in hits and 10th in RBI.
Shields was 14-10 with a 3.42 ERA in four years of Division 1 college baseball.
All three live in the area. Shields is a State Farm insurance agent in Machesney Park. Martin is an operations lead at Collins Aerospace. Rydberg lives in the Rockton area. His son, Josh, was an all-NIC-10 defensive back for Hononegah last year.
“The sad thing is we don’t really keep in touch,” Martin said. “I’d see Dave every once in a while when I played softball, but that was 10 years ago. I heard there was talk about an alumni game, but we’re probably too out of shape now to play.”
“It’s a little hard to believe that that was 30 years ago,” Shields said. “We’re old now.”