Class 2A Chicago Christian Regional
Regional title concludes Knights’ first playoff week
Two down, five to go.
Twenty-eight regular-season wins were obviously quite satisfying, but seven postseason triumphs would mean a great deal more to Chicago Christian. Reaching that total in the playoffs would net the Knights a first-ever state championship.
Christian coach Eric Brauer isn’t yet looking that far down the road, but the Knights are two steps closer to reaching the Promised Land than they were at the beginning of last week. That’s because they took care of business in their own Class 2A regional.
After blasting CICS-Longwood 23-0 in five innings last Wednesday, Christian came back on Saturday to down Chicago Agricultural Science 12-1 in six stanzas and lay claim to its fourth regional crown during Brauer’s five-year tenure at the school. The Knights (30-6), who also tied a program record for single-season wins, clash with El Paso-Gridley today in a Seneca Sectional semifinal.
While Brauer had an opportunity to scout the Titans a couple times, this will be the initial meeting between the schools. Gridley advanced out of the regional round by defeating Reed-Custer, which had scored a pair of upsets prior to Saturday’s finale.
“I have no problem playing somebody we’ve never heard of [before this past week],” Brauer said. “That’s the fun of the playoffs: playing teams you don’t normally play.”
And, although his team’s goals are lofty, Brauer doesn’t believe the weight of those expectations will lie heavily on his athletes.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure because we’re not expected to win [a sectional title],” he said. “We’ve never won a sectional in school history, but I think we’ve gotten comfortable being in those games and can compete in them. We know what we’re capable of when we play well and we’ve got a very good chance [to move on again].”
Having outscored three foes by a combined 53-2 last week — an 18-1 victory over Wheeler (Ind.) on Monday concluded the regular schedule — Christian might appear inadequately prepared for the tighter battles that are likely to come up the remainder of the tourney. However, the Knights didn’t run away and hide from Ag Science until the latter portion of Saturday’s contest.
The Cyclones, in fact, posed the first threat by either club as they placed men on second and third with just one out in the top of the third inning. With its cleanup and No. 5 hitters due up, Ag Science had a very real chance to gain a lead, but Christian hurler Josh Novak managed to escape unscathed from the predicament.
“They got our attention,” Brauer said of the Cyclones. “We were a base hit, error or wild pitch away from falling behind in that game.”
Not only did the Knights dodge trouble, they multiplied Ag Science’s frustration by erupting for four runs in the bottom of that same inning. Wally Findysz’s single and Dylan Marinec’s bunt hit opened the frame, then Sean O’Meara (two-run double), Corey Bulthuis and Ryan Bielecki all followed with RBI hits.
“I think it was huge,” Brauer said of Christian’s rally. “It took us one time through the lineup to get used to their pitcher, but things got going in the right direction pretty quickly. It was definitely a momentum turner for us to set the pace.”
The Cyclones tallied once in their half of the fourth, but the Knights immediately countered with Marinec’s suicide squeeze. Christian then exploded for seven runs over the fifth and sixth stanzas, with Findysz’s three-run homer and Brodie Meyer’s two-run blast serving as the critical blows.
“Given the choice, every coach would prefer to be up early and not be in a scoreless tie in the third inning,” Brauer said. “But it was good for it to be tight for a while, where we had to deal with some challenges.”
Still, the Knights’ boss wouldn’t declare routs to automatically be off-limits for the rest of the postseason.
“We assume the 10-run wins are over, but we’ve 10-runned some good teams this year when we play our brand of baseball,” Brauer said. “We broke the school record for sacrifice bunts, walks and hit-by-pitches, and that’s how we play. We’ve done a good job of playing one game at a time and nobody trying to shoulder too much of the load.”
While Novak improved his ledger to 8-1 with Saturday’s win, sophomore Christian Bolhuis triumphed for the 10th time on Wednesday as he pitched Chicago Christian past CICS-Longwood. Martin Johnston ran his record to 5-1 in the Knights’ shellacking of Wheeler.
The Bearcats, who are normally among the better small-school baseball programs in northwest Indiana, surrendered five first-inning runs to Chicago Christian and never recovered. The Knights tallied in four of five at-bats, with an eight-run third stanza representing the apex of their attack.
Interestingly, Chicago Christian totaled only nine hits, but had 11 other players reach base on either free passes or after being hit by pitches. O’Meara (3-for-4), Bulthuis (two hits, three RBI) and Meyer (two hits, two RBI) were the Knights’ top offensive guns behind Johnston, who stopped Wheeler on four hits through four innings, whiffed three and walked one.
Bolhuis fanned seven in only three innings of work on Wednesday while allowing just one hit and one walk to CICS-Longwood. He was given an 8-0 lead to protect when Chicago Christian erupted for that many runs in its initial plate appearance, and the Knights followed up with six-run surges in two of the next three stanzas.
Bulthuis (3-for-4) and Mike Santarelli (two hits, including a homer) both garnered four RBI to pace the Knights, while Jack De Vries chipped in three hits and two RBI. Meyer added a double and two RBI for Chicago Christian, which stroked 14 hits and drew that same number of bases-on-balls.
Chicago Christian 518 04 - 18
Wheeler 000 10 - 1
Chicago Christian RBI: Bulthuis 3, Meyer 2. WP: Johnston (5-1).
CICS-Longwood 000 00 - 0
Chicago Christian 863 6x - 23
Chicago Christian 2B: Meyer. HR: Santarelli. RBI: Bulthuis 4, Santarelli 4, De Vries 2, Meyer 2. WP: Bolhuis (10-3).
Agricultural Science 000 100 - 1
Chicago Christian 004 152 - 12
Chicago Christian 2B: O’Meara. HR: Findysz, Meyer. RBI: 3, Meyer 2, O’Meara 2, Bulthuis, Bielecki, Marinec. WP: Novak (8-1).