Vikings open season with tournament title
Deserts are easily found in Arizona, but St. Laurence baseball players viewed that southwestern state as more of an oasis last week.
The reason why is easy to understand: Arizona presented the Vikings with a satisfying alternative to the below-normal temperatures and soggy diamonds that have plagued this area and gave them a chance to enjoy ideal baseball conditions. While spring-break getaways have been standard practice for St. Laurence in recent seasons, a journey in this particular direction was a first for it.
And, if coach Pete Lotus has anything to say about the situation, it won’t be the last trip to that destination for the Vikings. Not only did they get in every game — something that didn’t happen a year ago in Florida due to rain — but they also triumphed each time out.
St. Laurence beat five opponents in a span of four days, a string of conquests that culminated with a tournament championship-clinching 7-4 victory over Ralston Valley (Colo.) on Friday.
“I think it’s definitely big,” Lotus said of his club’s 5-0 start to the 2014 campaign. “To be able to have success against teams that are used to playing in good weather and had already played some games was huge. We knew these first two weeks [of the schedule] were going to be tough, but hopefully this was a great stepping-stone.”
Seeing as how the Vikings had no on-field practice time prior to departing for Arizona, Lotus’ main goal for his athletes was to simply have them stay competitive against foes he knew would be formidable. And he wasn’t only thinking about his projected regulars.
“We used a lot of guys — that’s why we went down there,” Lotus said. “Those [non-starting] guys are going to be needed. I thought our kids did a great job of overcoming any adversity they faced [and] finding those things out was the most important thing.”
Although St. Laurence sported an unblemished ledger for the week, not everything went off completely without a hitch. Its defense, for example, sprang some major holes in last Tuesday night’s contest against Arvada West (Colo.), but the Vikings were able to overcome six errors to prevail by a 9-4 score.
The next day, Rincon (Ariz.) benefited from five walks, which it combined with seven hits to put pressure on St. Laurence. Luckily for the Vikings, they erupted for 10 hits of their own and Brad Wood, the last of four St. Laurence pitchers, registered a game-ending strikeout that forced Rincon to leave the bags filled and tagged it with an 8-5 defeat.
“I thought we could have put that game away [earlier] if we could have made them put the ball in play [more often] and not helped them out with walks,” Lotus said. “But our guys did a good job of battling back.”
The Vikings appeared to be in midseason form in their 8 a.m. season-opener on Tuesday, as they blanked Boulder (Colo.) High School 7-0 behind senior hurler Alex Hitney’s nine-strikeout, four-hit exhibition over five innings. Hitney did get into a couple of bases-loaded jams because of some walks, but wiggled out of both unscathed by slipping third strikes past two batters to halt the threats.
Roger Wilson added three strikeouts in a two-inning relief appearance and surrendered just one hit. Both he and Hitney were supported by a defense that was charged with only one miscue.
A Boulder error handed St. Laurence the only run it really needed in the initial stanza, but more noisemaking soon followed. Frank Greco (double, three RBI), Nate Tholl (two hits, two RBI) and T.J. Marik (sacrifice fly) were the Vikings’ key figures.
Besides its seven hits, St. Laurence also fueled its offense with 11 stolen bases. Thievery was an ongoing theme for the week, as the Vikings wound up with 33 steals in all.
“I don’t think they were expecting that,” Lotus said of his team’s opponents. “The big advantage we had was we ran the bases very aggressively and very well. I definitely think stealing bases helped us — it put us in a lot of good situations all week.”
St. Laurence 9
Arvada West 4
A six-run fourth inning enabled the Vikings to erase a 5-2 deficit and collect a win in their second Tuesday encounter despite their aforementioned fielding mishaps. Having several hours to kill between games didn’t do St. Laurence any favors, according to Lotus.
“We told them, ‘Don’t be in the sun too long because you’re not used to it,’ so we went back to the hotel and hung out,” Lotus said. “We were up at 5:30 [a.m. for the first game], so there was a lot of travel and different factors we don’t usually face.”
The Vikings’ pivotal frame featured five players driving in at least one run. Wood’s two-RBI single was the main blow, but Rob Gutierrez (double), Mike Miller, Marik and Wilson also stroked run-producing hits. Tholl (double), Wood and Miller garnered St. Laurence other RBI on hits in the first, second and sixth innings, respectively.
Greco and Zach Erdman joined forces on the hill to limit Arvada West to three hits. The former, who threw the first six stanzas, fanned six and did not allow an earned run.
St. Laurence 8
Hits by Wilson (two RBI) and Miller (one RBI) boosted the Vikings into a 3-0 lead right away on Wednesday, but that edge was gone by the bottom of the second, courtesy of some free passes. Three Rincon players who drew walks during the first two innings eventually scored.
“We came out really well and then gave it all back,” Lotus said. “But we found out a lot about John Riordan. He came in, in a tough situation, and did a good job.”
Riordan relieved for St. Laurence in the second frame and, after exiting a tight spot, threw three more uneventful innings. Wood’s single in the fourth inched the Vikes back in front, then the locals applied the finishing touches by tallying four times between the fifth and sixth stanzas. Kevin White (two-run single) and Mike Kornacker (RBI single) delivered the clutch hits.
St. Laurence 12
Ponoma (Colo.) 0
Lotus had instructed his guys to “not go down there [to Arizona] expecting to just walk through people,” but that’s pretty much what happened on Thursday versus Ponoma, thanks to Wood.
After striking out the last batter on Wednesday, Wood began Thursday’s contest by retiring three straight Ponoma hitters on third strikes in the top of the first. Then with Miller’s RBI triple serving as the primary hit, the Vikings erupted for four runs in the bottom of that same inning and cruised to a slaughter-rule triumph.
Kornacker slammed a three-run homer in the fifth to bring the game to a premature halt. Wilson (two hits, double, RBI), Wood (two hits, double, RBI), White (two hits, one RBI), Marik (hit, RBI) and Mike Finger (hit, RBI) all lent assistance to St. Laurence’s offensive onslaught.
The real story, though, was Wood’s work on the mound. He racked up a total of 13 strikeouts, giving him 14 against 17 hitters over two days.
“He was special this [past] week,” Lotus said of his University of Illinois-Chicago-bound senior, who also posted a .530 average in the tourney. “He can throw all three of his pitches for strikes and I don’t think there’s any fear in him at any time. He’s progressed tremendously [since being a varsity sophomore] and he’s one of the best players around, for sure.”
St. Laurence 7
Ralston Valley 4
Kornacker scattered five hits and whiffed eight over 5 1/3 innings, and that laid the groundwork for the Vikings’ title-securing victory on Friday. Ralston Valley entered the contest ranked second among schools in Colorado and was termed by Lotus as “the best team we played down there.”
The Vikings snapped a 2-all tie in their portion of the fourth, as White (two RBI) and Gutierrez both poked run-scoring singles and Ralson Valley let two more St. Laurence players cross the plate on an error. Wood’s homer had accounted for the Vikes’ first two markers in the third inning.
“We got progressively better offensively as the week went on,” Lotus said.
St. Laurence was scheduled for another busy week this week, which wraps up with three games in a tournament in Indianapolis on Friday and Saturday. Before that, the Vikings were slated to host Lincoln-Way Central, Oak Park-River Forest and Harlan.
St. Laurence 101 201 2 — 7
Boulder 000 000 0 — 0
St. Laurence 2B: Greco, Kornacker. RBI: Greco 3, Tholl 2, Marik. WP: Hitney (1-0).
Arvada West 100 300 0 — 4
St. Laurence 110 601 x — 9
St. Laurence 2B: Gutierrez, Tholl. RBI: Wood 3, Miller 2, Gutierrez, Marik, Tholl, Wilson. WP: Greco (1-0).
St. Laurence 300 131 0 — 8
Rincon 210 002 0 — 5
St. Laurence RBI: White 2, Wilson 2, Kornacker, Miller, Wood. WP: Riordan (1-0).
St. Laurence 404 04 — 12
Ponoma 000 00 — 0
St. Laurence 2B: Wilson, Wood. 3B: Miller. HR: Kornacker. RBI: Kornacker 3, Finger, Marik, Miller, Wilson, Wood. WP: Wood (1-0).
Ralston Valley 011 002 0 — 4
St. Laurence 002 500 x — 7
St. Laurence 2B: Tholl, Wood. HR: Wood. RBI: White 2, Wood 2, Gutierrez. WP: Kornacker.