Knights take over first place in SCC Blue
To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
That axiom is a long-held one in athletic circles, and Chicago Christian fully embraced it last week, a week in which the two divisional leaders within the Suburban Christian Conference tangled with the Knights.
Blue Division front-runner Aurora Central Catholic traded lopsided wins with Chicago Christian, while Gold Division pacesetter Montini got handed a 9-1 defeat on Thursday. The Broncos then did the Knights a huge favor the next day by beating Aurora, which dropped the Chargers into second place within the Blue, one-half game in arrears of Chicago Christian.
A year ago, the Knights (20-3, 9-2) were already out of the conference race by this same point of the season. One of the differences is the heavier emphasis being placed on the capturing of a league championship this spring.
The idea behind the change in attitude, according to Christian coach Eric Brauer, is to better prepare the Knights for the future.
“It’s a different level in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s just a different focus, and we were going to try to simulate that as much as possible. We treat those [conference] games as playoff games.
“We had a very, very good week against some very good competition. We’re in the driver’s seat and we just have to take care of business.”
That’s certainly what happened last Monday, when Christian plated five first-inning runs and used those as the springboard to an eventual 11-0 rout of Aurora in a contest shortened to five frames by the mercy rule. Josh Novak’s bases-clearing double and Max Kerfin’s two-run homer accounted for all of the Knights’ markers in the opening stanza.
“We came out strong on Monday and that really set the tone for the week,” Brauer said. “We definitely played with a lot of confidence. If we come out and play our game and play well, we can beat anybody.
“That [first plate appearance] was everything we wanted it to be. When you’ve got your No. 1 going on the mound and you’re up 5-0 [right away], that’s a good feeling.”
And that feeling kept getting better, as the Knights added to their total by tallying again in the second and fourth innings. Brodie Meyer and Corey Bulthuis each stroked an RBI single in the second, and the former struck again in the fourth when he blasted a grand slam.
Novak didn’t need that much support in order to run his pitching ledger to 5-0. In recording his third straight shutout, the senior stopped the Chargers on one hit and lowered his season earned-run average to a microscopic 0.26.
For good measure, Novak collected two hits of his own to match Meyer and Dylan Marinec. Marinec also walked, got hit by a pitch and scored three times. Christian garnered nine hits and had 13 baserunners, as it continued to tap deeply into the scoring chances presented it.
“We’ve rarely squandered a scoring opportunity this season,” Brauer said. “We’ve been really efficient in scoring runs. This team’s really coachable, and we have guys who aren’t afraid to hit the ball to the right side and move a runner along or hit a sacrifice fly. Guys are taking pride in having good at-bats.
“They’re unselfish and know we’re just trying to score runs. We take pride in playing ‘small ball’ and we’re not afraid to play for one run. If we score a run an inning, we think we’re in a good position to win.”
Brauer also thought his players benefited from performing within a “charged atmosphere,” created by the presence of two solid clubs, about 80 fans and the warmest weather of the spring. The setback brought to an end Aurora’s 15-game win streak.
Aurora Central Catholic 11
Chicago Christian 1
The Chargers had to wait an extra day to seek revenge, thanks to rainy weather, and when play resumed on Wednesday it did so back in Palos Heights. Chicago Christian played as the visitors on its own field and Aurora proceeded to make itself feel right at home.
The Chargers did that by holding the Knights to a pair of hits — one of them an RBI single by Novak — and using back-to-back four-run rallies to tag Christian with its own slaughter-rule loss. Key to Aurora’s rout was a fifth-inning grand slam slugged by the Chargers’ No. 7 man in the batting order, who had gone 0-for-6 in the series prior to that.
“It all had a different feel after that,” Brauer said. “It wasn’t an 11-1 game [in some ways], but they were definitely the better team that day. Those were two very odd games, but at the end of the day, I think we’re pretty evenly matched. We’re both quality teams.”
Christian Bolhuis absorbed the pitching defeat for the Knights, just his second in nine decisions.
Chicago Christian 9
Eleven baserunners translated into nine runs for the Knights on Thursday, and they rolled over the Broncos in a conference crossover to quickly regain their footing in the battle for first place in the SCC Blue.
“That’s part of why I love baseball — you get a chance to either bounce back the next day or the day after that,” Brauer said. “It’s great to be able to bounce back immediately.
“Eleven-to-1 [the day before] was a pounding, and I think the guys took that as a challenge. We played great and it was a great win for us.”
Christian picked up all the runs it would really need in the bottom of the second inning, using Novak’s single and Ryan Bielecki’s suicide squeeze to generate two of the payoffs. Marinec singled home another run in the fourth, then Novak and Kerfin both belted two-run doubles in the fifth to blow the contest wide open.
One more RBI two-bagger from Kerfin in the sixth established the final margin and made an easy winner of reliever Chris Lyle. Lyle worked the last four frames on a yield of only two hits and did not issue any free passes.
Chicago Christian 16
Illiana Christian 6
The Knights stepped outside of conference on Saturday and stepped on the Vikings, who met their former Private School League rival at Valparaiso University. Big days by Sean O’Meara (two-run homer, two-run triple) and Wally Findysz (homer, two-run triple) boosted Chicago Christian, which opened up a 10-run margin by tallying six times in the bottom of the sixth.
“We had used our 1, 2 and 3 [pitchers earlier in the week], so we knew we’d have to score some runs,” Brauer said. “We came out swinging and it was really fun.”
Meyer (two hits, two RBI), Marinec (two hits, three walks, four runs), Bielecki (two hits, one walk) and Mike Santarelli (one hit, three RBI) were other principal individuals for the Knights, who collected at least three runs in four of their six at-bats. All that support made it easy for pitcher Mike Harms to pocket his first victory.
Brauer admitted that since Illiana and Chicago Christian no longer share a league residence, the intensity of the schools’ rivalry has lessened a bit in most sports outside of boys’ basketball. Still, he considers any matchup with the Vikings an important one and not completely devoid of emotion.
But even more critical was an eight-day stretch that began this past Monday with the first of consecutive games against St. Edward, which is competing with Chicago Christian and Aurora for SCC Blue supremacy. The Knights were slated for six games in all over those eight days.
“They’re ready for the challenge,” Brauer said of his athletes. “They’ve responded well to criticism and it’s a lot of fun to coach guys who are this open to [making] improvement.”
Aurora Cent. Catholic 000 00 - 0
Chicago Christian 520 4x - 11
Chicago Christian 2B: Novak. HR: Kerfin, Meyer. RBI: Meyer 5, Novak 3, Kerfin 2, Bulthuis. WP: Novak (5-0).
Chicago Christian 000 001 - 1
Aurora Cent. Catholic 201 044 - 11
Chicago Christian RBI: Novak. LP: Bolhuis (7-2).
Montini 000 100 0 - 1
Chicago Christian 030 141 x - 9
Chicago Christian 2B: Kerfin 2, Meyer, Novak. RBI: Kerfin 3, Novak 3, Bielecki, Marinec. WP: Lyle (3-0).
Illiana Christian 002 211 - 6
Chicago Christian 433 006 - 16
Chicago Christian 3B: Findysz, O’Meara. HR: Findysz, O’Meara. RBI: O’Meara 4, Findysz 3, Santarelli 3, Meyer 2. WP: Harms (1-0).