JOLIET – St. Francis sophomore right fielder Nick Dama boasts one varsity at-bat this baseball season.
No. 2 did not come Friday, and it won’t likely be in the cards when the Spartans play Joliet Catholic for the 3A state championship at 11:30 a.m. today.
Dama joined the team as a late-season call-up, used his agility to entrench himself as a defensive regular and then put his head down and ran because that’s what everyone else around him was doing.
To be sure, Friday’s 6-3 victory against Grayslake Central saw the Spartans moving all about well before reliever Andrew Brundage fanned Rams center fielder Matt Loeffl for the final out. St. Francis (25-11) captured the program’s first state semifinal the only way it knows how.
“Running has always been a big part,” Dama said. “We’ve got a pretty fast group and everyone’s been good runners, good baserunners, and that’s what keeps us in games. Can win us games.”
Grayslake Central (26-14) struggled to defend that go-go approach during the key sequence of the game.
With one out and runners on second and third in the bottom of the fourth, Spartans third baseman Tim Zettinger dropped a deft squeeze bunt down the first-base line. Coach Rich Janor spotted the infield playing deep in a 1-all game and sensed a chance to capitalize.
Lanky Rams right-hander Jack Spicer threw to first baseman Kyle Clark, but when Clark took his eye off the slightly sinking throw, the ball squirted behind the bag and allowed Josh Croci and Brett Jungles to score.
“After I threw the pitch, I saw it coming. And you know, when we went to field it, it was a great bunt,” Spicer said. “I think I could have had a better throw, and it just pulled Kyle off the bag in just kind of an an unfortunate way.”
For Zettinger, it was just as simple.
“We practice suicide squeezes all year long,” he said. “It’s been a point of emphasis for our offense. So coach gave me the sign, and after all the practice, I just laid one down.”
A season that will long be defined by a remarkable run following a subpar start might as well include its share of darts and dashes.
Struggling to find a clear-cut catalyst, the Spartans credit their current surge of 19 wins in 22 games to sustaining a pressuring attack and slick defense.
The Spartans overcame rare hiccups in the latter department, as a pair of early errors helped the Rams load the bases in the first and third innings. Grayslake Central emerged only with a run-scoring sacrifice fly from center fielder Loeffl, which tied the game at 1-all in the third.
Janor called the rest of the attack behind righty Jack Petrando (five innings, two runs, one earned) “a little bit of fire, little bit of ice.” Shortstop Jason Sullivan sparked the St. Francis attack with three hits, all singles.
Zettinger added a run-scoring single to give him three RBIs, but Croci’s double in a three-run fifth was the only tally delivered on an extra-base hit. After edging Kaneland (3-2), Burlington Central (2-1) and Sycamore (1-0) in the regional final through sectional final, respectively, the Spartans aren’t apologizing.
The hits paid off as Grayslake Central brought the tying run to the plate in the sixth. Brundage responded with a strikeout of left fielder Pat Burba to end the threat.
“We’ve been in a lot of tough situations, I think, the entire playoff run, and we had a lot of close games. I think we just looked at is as we had a good cushion, lead, and we were just trying to get outs out there any way we could,” Jungles said. “Whatever worked is what worked. We didn’t really get nervous too much, and we just bear down and get the out.”
3A State Baseball Tournament
At Silver Cross Field, Joliet
St Francis 6, Grayslake Central 3
Joliet Catholic 4, Mount Vernon 0
St. Francis (25-11) vs. Joliet Catholic (24-14) in championship game, 11:30 a.m.
Grayslake Central (26-14) vs. Mount Vernon (31-9-1) in third-place game, 9 a.m.