JOLIET – Libertyville junior catcher Evan Skoug admittedly charted the flight of his tide-turning grand slam in Friday's 4A state baseball semifinal against St. Charles East.
How couldn't he? Skoug's fourth-inning shot blazed out of Silver Cross Field and bounced off the top of a pickup truck parked beyond the right field fence. It was a no-doubter with two strikes that ultimately provided the winning runs in a 9-6 Wildcats win.
The Saints watched the trajectory, too, but instead of gawking, did something else. They kept swinging.
On a day that stil could rank among the most memorable in the school's athletic annals – Did you hear about what the softball team did downstate? – East left in defeat but didn't lose its resolve.
"Everybody was just trying to stay upbeat," senior left fielder Joe Hoscheit said. "I know it was tough after that grand slam kind of took the wind out of our sails a little bit, but we came back and it was just awesome to see us come back and rally after that."
Skoug's grand slam punctuated a five-run Libertyville fourth that provided the Panthers (28-11-1) with a 7-1 cushion. East (27-12) immediately responded with four runs in the top of the fifth, with Anthony Sciarrino opening the rally with a single.
"We knew they were tough," said Skoug, who hit his eighth homer, "but we knew we had to be confident and not let down."
Entering Friday, East's largest margin of defeat was four runs, accomplished three times. One of those instances was May 6, when Neuqua Valley senior right-hander Cody Coll blanked the Saints in a two-hit road shutout. East will meet Neuqua Valley for third-place at 3 p.m. today.
The first Neuqua game marked the first loss for standout Saints senior righty Matt Starai, who hardly wilted after that Upstate Eight Conference crossover outing.
Starai entered the tournament 10-1 with a 0.54 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 78 innings, and is likely to pitch again today despite a late relief outing in a bid to keep the deficit at 7-5.
Naturally, East would rather have another shot at Libertyville's Wildcats, but Neuqua Valley's will suffice, especially given the way the first meeting went.
"That was probably one of our worst games of the year," Hoscheit said. "We were really sluggish, didn't hit the ball, make the plays. That was a rough game. So I mean, if we come back and bounce back and forget about [Friday] – I know it's going to be tough – but it would be good to go on top and be the last team that wins in the Upstate Eight."
The public address announcer informed fans of the East softball team's stunning comeback victory against Barrington in a 4A state semifinal before Saints shortstop Nicholas Erickson batted to begin the game.
With supporters trying to fathom just how wild it might be for both East teams to advance to play for state championships, starter Nick Huskisson faced control problems.
Huskisson walked four and hit two batters in 3 1/3 innings, but was at his sharpest in the second, when he notched two of his four strikeouts and retired Libertyville in order.
"I was a little disappointed with myself on the mound today," Huskisson said. "Obviously, I didn't have my best stuff, but that was a good Libertyville team."
Huskisson was charged with five runs – all earned – including two from the Skoug grand slam, which came on a Troy Dykhuis curveball at the knees. One inning earlier, East coach Len Asquini called for an intentional walk of Skoug.
Asquini said he would have done so again if a base had been open. There was a sense of "What if?" after Libertyville right fielder Connor Simpson's fielder's choice ahead of Skoug's at-bat. With two men in scoring position and one out, Saints third baseman Sean Dunne tried to make a play on the runner leaning off third base instead of throwing across the diamond.
"That's that little part of the game that probably no one recognizes, but if we would have got an out there, that base would have been open," Asquini said. "We would have walked [Skoug] again, and then who knows?"
Libertyville, which will meet Mount Carmel for the state championship at 5:30 p.m. today, out-hit East, 11-8.
Hoscheit (three hits) and designated hitter Isaac Nimick (two) led the Saints' attack, while Brian Sobieski and Brannon Barry drove in two runs apiece.
Asquini said each of the relievers who followed Huskisson – Dykhuis, Mike Boehmer and Starai – were eligible to pitch today.
"We're going to take our lumps here and lick our wounds, come out tomorrow fresh and go out and get that third-place trophy," Asquini said.
4A State Baseball Tournament
At Silver Cross Field, Joliet
Mount Carmel 8, Neuqua Valley 0
Libertyville 9, St. Charles East 6
St. Charles East (27-12) vs. Neuqua Valley (30-10) in third-place game, 3 p.m
Mount Carmel (32-8) vs. Libertyville (28-11-1) in championship game, 5:30 p.m.