JOLIET – There weren’t many smiles on the faces of St. Francis baseball players after dropping Saturday's IHSA Class 3A state championship game to Joliet Catholic, 5-0, at Joliet's Silver Cross Field.
A glance at two critical stats would provide the reason for the long faces.
The Hilltoppers scored five runs in the fourth of St. Francis starter Jason Sullivan (8-2), only two of which were earned. The Spartans also left 10 runners on base against JCA starter Nick Dalesandro (7-2).
It all added up to a tough final day of the season for the Spartans, who were gracious in defeat despite the loss.
“We really did a great job but we just fell apart in that one inning,” St. Francis catcher Brett Jungles said. “We had to come in and play good, clean defense to win a state title. We had a little lapse – four errors – but we’re all happy to be in this position. It’s a lot better than losing in the regional semifinal or something.”
The inning that Jungles alluded to was the Hilltoppers’ fourth, in which a harmless bunt opened up the floodgates for JCA (25-14).
Sullivan opened the fourth by permitting a leadoff single to Aaron Markley before Chris Tschida walked to set up a sacrifice bunt situation for Dalesandro. Dalensandro did his job, but the ball was close enough to home plate that Jungles ran into the JCA pitcher going after the ball. After getting untangled, Jungles unsuccessfully tried to tag Dalesandro before uncorking his throw to first that sailed into right field. Markley raced around to score from second for the game's first run.
“First I thought the ball hit him out of the box because he wasn’t running. Then I got up to get the ball and he ran into me, which I thought would be interference,” Jungles said. “Then I thought I got him in the back of the jersey, which I guess I missed. Then I took a bad angle – mental error – and I made a bad throw. I knew it opened up the inning but I had to forget about it and move on.”
The play scored the first of five runs in the inning, only one of which came via a hit. Sullivan uncorked a wild pitch that scored Tschida before Dalesandro beat Tim Zettinger's throw home that gave the Hilltoppers a 4-0 lead. One batter later, John Kalisik ripped an opposite field, RBI triple that plated the final run of the inning.
“We made a couple of defensive mistakes, those things happen,” St. Francis coach Rich Janor said. “Obviously their only scoring all game came in that inning. It was a bad inning, and we never recovered from it.”
What may have hurt worse for St. Francis (25-12) was leaving 10 runners on base. Right before the Hilltoppers’ explosion, the Spartans had runners at second and third with just one out. But, as he did on four other occasions, Dalesandro worked out of the jam, striking out Chris Smith and pinch hitter T.J. Jackson to end the threat.
In all, Dalesandro scattered seven hits in the complete game effort while striking out nine Spartans. The sophomore mixed an 86-89 mph fastball with a curveball and changeup that had St. Francis off balance for much of the game.
Dalesandro struck out the side in the final frame to set off a raucous celebration in front of 2,891 fans – many of whom made the short trip to see the Hilltoppers claim their third state title in program history.
“I just tried to gain momentum – and that goes to my defense,” Dalesandro said. “Sometimes I pitched backwards and would start with two curveballs in a row. Sometimes I would throw two fastballs in a row. I never played in front of this big a crowd before and they gave me all the power in the world.”
Jungles had two doubles on the day for St. Francis – both of which led off innings for the Spartans, who made the first title game appearance in program history.
“Last game as a high school player and I thought I stepped up pretty big with two doubles,” Jungles said. “To strand runners, we just need guys to step up in the moment and be big. We just couldn’t find ways to get guys in today.”