Burlington Central squares up at right time

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When the calendar turned to May, Burlington Central’s baseball team found itself stuck at the .500 mark and struggling to gain traction in a season filled with one rainout after another.

Fast forward to the present and the Rockets have not only snapped out of their funk, but they also have regained some of the swagger that comes with being one of the most successful programs in the Fox Valley in the past decade.

Fresh off its fourth regional championship in five years, Burlington Central (16-12) now has its sights set on capturing its second straight sectional crown. The Rockets begin the quest Wednesday when they play St. Francis (21-11) in the semifinals of the Class 3A Sycamore Sectional.

“We knew we could play well, and we’re getting hot at the right time,” Burlington Central junior Mike Lee said. “Our goal is to do the best we can and be the team we’re capable of being.”

Lee is one of several varsity newcomers who were called upon to step into Burlington Central’s lineup this season. Mixing the new faces with the team’s varsity veterans took longer than usual as the Rockets had only 14 games under their belts by the end of April.

With better weather came more opportunities to jell, and Burlington Central’s players responded as they packed their past 14 games into a span of 22 days. Along the way the Rockets claimed the Big Northern East title and notched notable nonconference victories against Class 4A schools Prairie Ridge and Libertyville.

“At the beginning of the season it was all wet out and rainy,” Burlington Central senior Blake Alexander said. “The weather was pretty bad and there weren’t too many outdoor practices, so we just had to push through it.”

Alexander, junior Bryan Cynova and senior Michael Scott have helped lead the way after playing key roles on last year’s sectional championship team. Alexander’s .367 batting average and 25 runs lead the squad, and Cynova boasts a team-best 27 RBI.

There also have been significant contributions from the newcomers, most notably on a pitching staff where juniors Danny Gerke (6-3, 1.37 ERA, 66 strikeouts) and Jacob Schutta (5-0, 1.43 ERA) headline the rotation. Meanwhile, Lee has developed into a steady presence at the top of the batting order with a .341 average and 23 runs.

The winner between Burlington Central and St. Francis advances to Saturday’s championship game against the winner of Thursday’s semifinal between Sycamore (24-11) and Rockford East (17-8). The Rockets did not play any of the other sectional semifinalists during the regular season.

Burlington Central still has an outside chance of extending its streak of 20-win seasons to five, but in order to do so it will have to advance to next week’s state finals in Joliet. For now, though, the team’s primary focus is on handling the pressure that comes with playing in a sectional.

“It’s good to have guys who have been around it,” Burlington Central coach Kyle Nelson said. “When it’s your first time being there in a sectional it can be a little more nerve-racking than when you’ve been there before. Hopefully, being there the last few years is going to help these guys as we go forward.”

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