Disabato: Sectional baseball matchups? Can’t beat ’em

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When the IHSA released the state baseball playoff pairings a few weeks back, some fans and coaches complained about the difficulty of local regional match-ups.

I could sympathize.

First-round regional games between 20-game winners Lincoln-Way West and Lemont, Catholic League Blue foes Providence and Brother Rice and neighborhood rivals Marian Catholic and Homewood-Flossmoor resembled championship affairs, not playoff openers.

But as long as the IHSA prioritizes regional representation ahead of having the best teams competing at the state finals in Joliet on June 7 and 8, the trend of localized first-round barn burners is sure to continue.

As I see it, that’s worth it — as long as the payoff is Wednesday’s and Thursday’s sectional fields.

So this is what it feels like to win the Lotto?

I mean, really, as far as locally appealing fan-friendly quality baseball goes, the sectional semifinals couldn’t have been drawn up any better if I were the bracketologist.

At Reavis, the top four seeds are competing. Translation: the best teams. On Wednesday it was No. 1 Mount Carmel vs. No. 4 Lyons; on Thursday it’s Catholic Blue rivals No. 2 St. Laurence vs. No. 3 St. Rita.

At Providence, neighborhood rivals Lincoln-Way North and Lincoln-Way East played Wednesday, and 30-win Lockport and surging Providence go at it Thursday.

Folks, each one of those games is sure to draw major crowds, which will please the IHSA’s bean counters and appease fans yearning to soak in quality baseball.

“The way I look at it is we happen to be in an area with a lot of baseball talent,” St. Rita coach Mike Zunica said. “In an area with a lot of talent, you have to accept the fact that you have to beat really good teams to get to state.

“I don’t think about it (pairings). You play who you have to play. It’s elimination baseball. I look at who we have to beat that day to survive the season.”

For St. Rita, that means overcoming a St. Laurence team that has won two of three head-to-head meetings.

The Mustangs, however, prevailed in the last encounter, 5-2, during the Steven M. Bajenski Memorial Tournament.

“What’s not to like?” Zunica said of the road ahead of the Mustangs which, with a win means a Saturday date with either Lyons or Mount Carmel. “I don’t think it matters that we’re playing St. Laurence. I’m sure it does to the fans and other people, but I think my players would be stoked to play anybody. We just want to keep playing.”

The opportunity to end St. Laurence’s season, however, ups the ante, just as it does for the Vikings to apply the final dagger for St. Rita’s 2013 campaign.

It’s why the St. Laurence-St. Rita rivalry is one of the most passionate in the Southland.

St. Laurence won the Catholic League Blue championship for the second time in the past three seasons. With the abundance of talent in the Blue, the Vikings’ feat is remarkable.

However, duplicating that championship form during sectional competition has eluded St. Laurence in past years. The Vikings have won a bunch of games during coach Pete Lotus’s eight-year run, but the trophy case remains void of sectional championship hardware.

Lotus has talked with his players about not putting too much pressure on themselves, to go out and treat the playoffs like any other game.

“We talk about not letting the situation get too big for us,” Lotus said. “We’ve been in big situations all year, with the Catholic League games, the big crowds, the (Bajenski) tournament. Hopefully, we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves. Go out and have fun.”

And what could be more fun than having a chance to play a rival in the postseason?

“It won’t be a problem getting the kids up for this game,” Lotus said. “There’s a built in rivalry with the kids from both teams. It’s exciting.”

Neither coach was willing to tip his hand on his starting pitcher for Thursday.

Each team has faced the other’s top three starters. Brad Wood and Mike Kornacker earned wins over St. Rita. Wood’s victory was especially notable, considering he fired a no-hitter during a 7-0 win over the Mustangs and ace Mike Costanzo.

Pat Henry guided the Mustangs to their only victory over St. Laurence.

“We have confidence in all three of our guys,” Lotus said of Wood, Kornacker and Zach Lewis.

I’m guessing Zunica will hand the ball to Costanzo, who’s 8-3 and leads the area in strikeouts with 86.

“We’ll see,” Zunica said. “What I do know is that I like our team a lot. We’re healthy and we’re hungry. It’s going to be fun.”

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