While baseball features individual duals within each game, a cohesive team is necessary to weather the ups and downs of a typical season.
Orland Park natives Ben Salvador and Matt Diehl were not on Providence Catholic coach Mark Smith’s preseason list of projected starters, but both wound up helping the Celtics capture the Class 4A championship Saturday in Joliet.
Salvador’s absence from that list was understandable: He hadn’t played baseball as a junior, choosing instead to focus his athletic energies on soccer. But when another Orland resident, outfielder Matt Payton, suffered an elbow injury in hockey and was forced to miss the 2014 baseball campaign, Salvador’s presence on the roster suddenly became more meaningful.
“Ben stepped in from the first day and never looked back,” Smith said. “He was our catalyst offensively all season long from that leadoff spot.”
Salvador patrolled center field for the Celtics in all 42 games while batting first in the lineup and utilizing his speed when he got on base. He went 1-for-4 with one run scored and one RBI in the state semifinal game against Prairie Ridge on Friday and added another hit and RBI on Saturday versus fellow Chicago Catholic League Blue member St. Rita.
That RBI in the finale gave Providence an insurance run in the sixth and enabled it to complete an unexpected run to the top of Class 4A with a 4-1 victory.
“I will never forget this for the rest of my life,” Salvador said. “The team chemistry is what got us here. We’re brothers is basically all I’ve got to say — we’re brothers.
“I just love this team. Everyone, up and down the lineup, they helped, even guys coming off the bench [and] making big plays. I’ll never forget it.”
Diehl was one of those bench guys who got pressed into service. The junior replaced Phil Kunsa in right field after the latter was ejected in the first inning of the semifinal game following a collision at first base as he was running out a ground ball.
Kunsa’s ejection drew an automatic one-game suspension, which he served in the championship contest. That meant Diehl was needed again on Saturday.
“I knew I had huge shoes to fill with Kunsa gone,” Diehl said. “He was one of our best hitters. I just took it pitch by pitch and I just tried to fill in for him as best I could.”
Despite appearing in only 16 games and taking 13 at-bats prior to Saturday, Diehl had his coach’s trust when he took the field. Diehl only recorded one hit in five at-bats in the two state contests, but Smith termed Diehl’s leadoff single during a six-run sixth inning in Friday’s 8-7 semifinal victory over Prairie Ridge “a huge hit” and said it was “what started that whole sixth-inning rally.”
“No one thought we could do this,” Diehl said. “We had one of the worst records coming into these playoffs, but we took games one at a time and just kept winning. It was an unbelievable journey.
“It’s just incredible. It’s unreal [and] I can’t believe this actually happened. It’s great.”
While Salvador and Diehl both hail from Orland, the decision to attend Providence was an easy one for each.
“They have an incredible baseball program,” Diehl said. “It’s a great school. I just fit in great here. I love this school.”
Salvador echoed a similar sentiment, saying his 22-minute commute from Orland to New Lenox was “not bad at all” and definitely worthwhile now that he helped the Celtics reach prep baseball’s promised land.
“I came to Providence because my two brothers went here, and I just know the community that it has,” Salvador said. “Everything we do, we do for the community. I’m just glad that we could bring home a state championship for the community of Providence.”
Justin Davis (Orland Park) and Richard Yusa (Oak Lawn) played roles for the Celtics throughout the season, although neither saw tournament action.
Davis had been Providence’s fifth starter on the hill but was not called on after Smith shortened his pitching rotation for the postseason. Yusa was the starting catcher, but like Payton he had to deal with an injury suffered while playing hockey.
Yusa was playing both sports at the same time because the two seasons overlap. Sophomore Jimmy Jeffries, who substituted for Yusa on hockey days, became the Celtics’ full-time backstop.
“[Yusa] stepped to the side and said, ‘Jimmy’s playing better than I am. I understand it. I’ll be here if you need me,’” Smith said. “And that’s what a great team player he was.”
On the St. Rita side, sophomore Mateo Zunica (Palos Park), senior Jake Drada (Orland Park) and junior Dylan Helstern (Oak Lawn) were local products who contributed to the Mustangs’ season.
“What you saw in the Final Four tells you everything you need to know about the sport of baseball,” said Palos Park native and St. Rita coach Mike Zunica. “How many losses did we have and how many losses did the other teams have? What were [the Celtics] — a six seed? Who knows? It’s a cruel sport.”