Getting back home hasn’t been a simple task for Joliet Catholic’s baseball team.
The Hilltoppers will be playing in the state tournament in their hometown for the first time since 2010, needing two wins to earn their third IHSA championship overall and second since 2009.
Given their runner-up finish in the summer state tourney last year, that might not seem like much of a surprise. But the Hilltoppers (25-14) have faced their share of adversity in earning their Class 3A semifinal berth vs. Mt. Vernon (31-8-1) at noon Friday at Silver Cross Field.
“At the beginning of the year, all eyes [were] on us,” said senior shortstop Chris Tschida, who leads Joliet Catholic in batting (.392), runs batted in (31) and runs scored (42).
“But you know, we lost like our first five or something [actually three of four], everyone was doubting us. [But] all of us knew that we were going to make it to Friday, June 7.”
The trials continued throughout the season. The Hilltoppers went 8-8 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference and lost senior lefty Matt Testa with a season-ending injury after just two appearances.
“You’re playing through the regular season, you’re in stretches when you’re playing 11 games in seven days and stuff like that,” Joliet Catholic coach Jared Voss said. “At times the pitching gets a little thin. Obviously, losing Matt Testa early in the year made things even thinner.”
But with the extra days off built into the playoff schedule, the Hilltoppers’ pitching has been dominant. The best has been senior righty Sam Couch (5-1, 1.21 earned run average), who has shut out St. Rita, Lemont and Evergreen Park in his last three starts. Nick Dalesandro (6-2, 2.03) and Cal Placher (7-4, 2.25) also have been reliable on the mound.
That’s been important because of the team’s other health issues, including an injury to starting second baseman Rylan Bannon (.328).
“We’ve been battling,” said Tschida, a Western Illinois recruit. “No one’s quit. Next guy up every time, next guy up. Our motto’s, ‘Count on me.’ That’s what we’ve been doing since Day 1.”
Mt. Vernon, making its first final four appearance in program history, is led by junior right-hander Brock Fulkerson (11-2, 1.76).
St. Francis (24-11-1) is also enjoying its longest postseason run ever after rebounding from a 1-5 start. Sophomore pitcher-shortstop Jason Sullivan (8-1, 1.75; .317 batting average) paces the Spartans, who are 18-3-1 since April 24.
A year after two West Suburban Silver teams met for the Class 4A title (Oak Park-River Forest beat Lyons 4-3), two Upstate Eight schools are in this spring’s final four: Neuqua Valley (30-9) and St. Charles East (27-11).
“it does point to the strength of the conference this year,” said St. Charles East coach Len Asquini, who guided St. Charles to a state title in 1999. “Maybe we can get lucky like the West Suburban last year and have two Upstate Eight teams playing for the state championship.”
Neuqua Valley, which won the Class AA title in 2007, has been rolling with 16 wins in its last 17 games heading into a 3 p.m. Friday semifinal against Mount Carmel (31-8). The Wildcats have one of the state’s deeper pitching staffs with Jonathan Vlk (8-0, 1.43), Danny Mokrzycki (8-0, 1.83), Cody Coll (7-3, 1.30) and David Gerber (7-2, 2.81).
Mount Carmel is the only No. 1 sectional seed to reach the Class 4A final four. Catholic League Blue player of the year Jason Gasser (.414, 30 RBI) and Beau Filkins (.442) pace the Caravan offense, while Kansas-bound Jeremy Kravetz (8-3, 1.36) has playoff wins over Lyons and Lockport.
The second Class 4A semifinal matches St. Charles East against Libertyville (27-11), making its first trip to state since 1976, at 5 p.m. Friday. Senior righty Matt Starai is 10-1 with an 0.54 ERA for the Saints, while the Wildcats are led by junior catcher Evan Skoug (.440, 41 RBIs) and senior infielder Kevin Calamari (.391, 39 RBIs).