Crown fits Chargers fine
Stagg wins three times to gain championship
Richards coach Brian Wujcik gave his players adequate warning before last Wednesday’s Class 4A Homewood-Flossmoor Regional semifinal got underway.
“We told them two things: Things are just different in the playoffs and Stagg’s not the same team they were when we played them in the second week [of the regular season],” he said.
Wujcik couldn’t have been more correct. Not only did the Chargers avenge an earlier 14-4 setback with a spirit-crushing 4-1 triumph over the favored Bulldogs, but they carried the momentum of that unexpected conquest forward.
Stagg, which blasted Eisenhower 13-0 in a play-in game to earn its berth opposite Richards, completed a stunning run to a regional championship by edging Lincoln-Way East 3-2 on Saturday. The Chargers last won a postseason title in 2008, although they have played in six regional finals during Matt O’Neill’s eight coaching seasons.
Next up for Stagg (16-18) was a date with top-seeded Lincoln-Way North this past Wednesday in an Andrew Sectional semifinal. The Phoenix advanced by beating Marist 4-3 in the latter’s own regional on Saturday.
While the Chargers would once again fill the underdog’s role in sectional play, O’Neill was unconcerned heading into Wednesday’s contest.
“I think with our guys it’s just another game,” he said. “At this point, nothing is pressure because we’ve seen it all. We’ve been playing in a lot of close games all year long, and the last month of the season we played solid baseball in terms of pitching and defense.”
That certainly was true in Stagg’s victory over Lincoln-Way East. Not only did the Chargers perform flawlessly in the field, but Max Strus provided them with staunch relief.
The senior was the winning pitcher against Richards, but O’Neill thought he was even more effective on Saturday as he shut out the Griffins over the last 4 2/3 innings. It was difficult to dispute that assessment after Strus threw 40 of 59 pitches for strikes and retired the last 14 batters he faced.
“We’re not a strikeout team — we have to make plays,” O’Neill said. “With the way we’ve been playing defense, it was a lot more comfortable for him to challenge hitters.
“After basketball and pitching in big games, I don’t think there will ever be a situation where [Strus] feels pressure. He wants the ball — I think he doesn’t know what to do if he doesn’t have it. He’s just a competitor.”
O’Neill said he didn’t hesitate in bringing Strus back so quickly after a starting assignment.
“His pitch count is way different than other guys,” O’Neill said. “He’s not throwing in fall showcases or for summer travel teams, so there’s no wear on his arm.”
Strus not only kept Lincoln-Way East’s sticks quiet, but he made his presence felt as a batter, too, as he slugged a two-run homer in the fifth to pull Stagg into a tie. Two innings later, Nick Nowak decided things in the Chargers’ favor by stroking an RBI single, which followed hits by CJ Casey and Jake Wimmer.
“It was the first time we’d been behind early in a while,” O’Neill said, speaking of the Griffins’ 2-0 lead that was built by the third inning. Mitch Matuszewski drove in both of the markers, one of them on a solo homer.
“I was interested to see how we’d respond,” O’Neill said. “This group of seniors doesn’t allow us to have any kind of a letdown. When you match us up talent-wise, we probably don’t match up with a lot of the teams we’ve been beating, but we want to compete as badly as — if not more than — them.”
Bulldogs pitcher AJ Sanchez hadn’t lost a game prior to Wednesday’s encounter with the Chargers, and even then the senior was sharp. He only allowed three hits, two of them to Brett Stratinsky.
Unfortunately for Richards (25-9), both of those balls left the yard. The second homer was a three-run blast in the sixth that gave Stagg greater breathing room and enabled it to withstand some minor Bulldogs rumbling in the bottom of that frame.
“We needed both of them,” O’Neill said of Stratinsky’s round-trippers. “Early in the season, I think he was pressing a little bit. It was just a matter of him mentally getting some confidence back.”
Richards’ only counter to Stratinsky’s exploits was Shawn Chiaramonte’s RBI double. The Bulldogs squandered a promising opportunity in the fifth, when they had three baserunners but came away empty.
A pickoff helped blow up the inning. Two groundouts then followed Dan Estrella’s double.
“We were hitting but right at them and they made the plays,” Wujcik said of the Chargers. “Their defense played very well. The big thing was we didn’t get the big hit, which is something we did all year.
“I thought we were confident going in. I was not sure we were playing real good baseball — the last two weeks of the season we were 4-4 — but there was no indication that guys were pressing or that we didn’t believe we couldn’t win the game.”
Wujcik admitted the loss went down particularly hard after Richards had captured its fourth South Suburban Conference Red title in five years and equaled the third-most wins for a single season in program history.
“Losing like we did sure makes 25-9 not feel very good,” he said. “I’ll feel more proud about it when we step away from it a little bit.
“I felt our regional was winnable and we expected to go a little bit farther, but we did a lot of really good things. And we did this without a certifiable stud on the roster. We had a group of overachieving high school players who, through hard work, gave themselves a chance to play at the next level.”
While no Bulldogs senior is heading for an NCAA Division I career, a dozen of them are expected to play college baseball next spring.
“Ultimately, that’s the goal,” Wujcik said. “If you really love the game, find a way to extend your career.”
The Cardinals played the Chargers on even terms for all but one inning last Monday. That stanza, however, was a complete disaster for Eisenhower.
Buoyed by Stratinsky’s grand slam, Stagg exploded for all of its runs in the second. Wimmer also drove in four runs on a pair of singles, while Calogelo Martinez collected two RBI on two hits. Garnering one RBI apiece were Casey and Peter Angelos.
Nick Gerzon and Austin Greer split the pitching chores and allowed just two hits. Each hurler fanned two batters.
Stagg 000 020 1 — 3
Lincoln-Way East 011 000 0 — 2
Stagg HR: Strus. RBI: Strus 2, Nowak. WP: Strus.
Stagg 000 103 0 — 4
Richards 000 001 0 — 1
Stagg HR: Stratinsky 2. RBI: Stratinsky 4. WP: Strus.
Richards 2B: Chiaramonte, Estrella. RBI: Chiaramonte. LP: Sanchez (5-1).
Eisenhower 000 00 — 0
Stagg 0(13)0 0x — 13
Stagg 2B: Stratinsky. HR: Stratinsky. RBI: Stratinsky 4, Wimmer 4, Martinez 2, Angelos, Casey. WP: Gerzon.