Class 4A Shepard Regional
Pardon the interruption
Crusaders’ quest for crown gets delayed
By Ken Karrson
To play’s the thing.
The sentiment is true for all baseball teams this time of year as postseason championships are there to be won. But sometimes outside forces interfere with the games.
That was the case for many area programs on Saturday as rain wiped out a number of scheduled regional-title contests. Included among them was a slated matchup between Brother Rice and Marian Catholic in the Class 4A Shepard Regional.
“Weather’s a part of it,” Crusaders coach John McCarthy said. “Our kids want to play, but there’s nothing you can do. We control the things we can control.”
What made sitting particularly difficult for Rice athletes was that they were hoping to maintain the momentum constructed last Wednesday in a 16-6 pounding of Crete-Monee. McCarthy tried to keep his guys sharp with a couple practice sessions, but he wasn’t sure how they’d respond when they clashed with the Spartans this past Monday.
What McCarthy was certain of was the need to simply live in the moment and not worry about anything that came before.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everything’s a different test. Anything can happen [in the playoffs], so you’ve got to bring your best [effort]. You’ve got to go out and win games.”
That’s what Rice (26-10) did versus the Warriors but not before Crete shocked the Crusaders in the top of the first. Rice pitcher Jack Guzek, who has pieced together a solid season on the hill, was unable to retire any of the seven batters he faced.
One of those players was thrown out on the bases, but the Warriors still piled up five runs as a two-run double and three RBI singles were part of a seven-hit onslaught.
“I give them a lot of credit -- they were ready to play,” McCarthy said of Crete. “They came out of the gates firing and were hitting [well]. Being down five was not how I drew it up, but to be honest I expected Crete to be good. They have strong senior leadership.”
Luckily for McCarthy, so too does his own squad.
“I don’t know if it could have gotten off any worse [for us],” he said. “While we’re going through it, we figured it’s going to end -- that’s the law of averages. [But] once we got through it, it was time to regroup. [We needed] to have good at-bats and not panic and try to do too much.”
Helping right the ship was an immediate response to the Warriors’ assault. The Crusaders shaved all but one run off their deficit in the bottom of the first, using Andrew Dyke’s RBI single and Mike Schalasky’s three-run homer as the pivotal blows.
“Everybody kind of breathed a sigh of relief when he hit that,” McCarthy said, referring to Schalasky’s blast. “That was about as clutch as you can get.”
Schalasky’s contributions didn’t end there. He went deep again in the third to drive in two more runs and collected a sixth RBI with his fifth-inning single.
And that still wasn’t all. Schalasky took the hill in relief of Guzek and, save for a run in the second, held Crete scoreless the remainder of the way. In upping his ledger to 7-1, Schalasky fanned six, walked two and surrendered just two hits.
“I think he was selling tickets before the game [too],” McCarthy joked of his talented star.
Schalasky was not forced to be a one-man gang, however. Dyke finished 4-for-4 with five RBI as he also drove in two runs apiece with a fourth-inning triple and fifth-inning double. Michael Massey singled in a pair of teammates, Max Hughes chipped in a double, Danny Paluch stroked an RBI single and Jake Ridgway gave Rice another marker by coaxing a bases-filled walk.
“You’re not taking any learning experiences from losing [now],” McCarthy said. “Maybe the younger players do, but for the seniors their season is over [with a defeat]. We were able to find a way to get through [the early trouble] and that’s what I was most impressed about. We took many positives from it.”
Marian Catholic 1
Given their South Suburban Conference Red championship and a school-record-tying number of wins this spring, it was reasonable to expect the Astros to supply the Crusaders with their opposition in this past Monday’s title clash.
But that would-be matchup of local talent didn’t materialize thanks to Bryce Hennessy. The Spartans’ pitcher quieted Shepard’s offense to a degree few probably felt possible when the clubs tangled last Thursday.
The Astros (24-9) managed just three singles of Hennessy, only one of which came before the sixth inning. Eric Horbach, who was almost equally as sharp on the mound, Rob Marinec and Bobby Peterka accounted for Shepard’s safeties.
“We were very nervous of that kid,” Astros coach Frank DiFoggio said of Hennessy. “We watched him against St. Rita and he was the right person to give us problems. [With] fastballs and changeups we’re OK, but he threw a cutter and nice curveball -- nothing straight.
“He had just enough movement [to bother us]. We popped a lot of balls up and hit a lot of them on the ground -- we didn’t get square on too many.”
Perhaps in anticipation of Hennessy’s mastery, Marian Catholic employed a somewhat unusual defensive strategy.
“They played us shallow and basically dared us to hit it over their heads,” DiFoggio said.
The scheme didn’t backfire, but Horbach made sure Shepard never fell out of contention by handcuffing Spartans batters. Marian collected only four hits off the Astros’ senior hurler and fanned six times, the same amount of strikeouts as Hennessy amassed.
“He pitched great,” DiFoggio said of Horbach. “We felt pretty good that they weren’t going to score a lot of runs against us if we didn’t play bad defense.”
Shepard made only one minor mistake, but it wound up having a major influence on the proceedings.
After allowing a seventh-inning single, the Astros were unable to cleanly field a sacrifice bunt, which gave the Spartans a pair of baserunners. Another bunt put the lead man on third and he raced home on a sacrifice fly.
Hennessy gave up his last hit in the bottom of the seventh, but a pickoff prevented Shepard from capitalizing on it. The Astros then went down without further incident.
Notable for Shepard in defeat was that DiFoggio was able to pencil in his regular starting lineup for the first time all season. Kevin Carmody, who had missed the majority of the campaign with an injury, was cleared for action and, according to DiFoggio, the “only person that hit a ball pretty deep -- and he did it twice.”
“Offensively, we thought we’d get a couple freebies,” DiFoggio said. “We figured if we could get on [base] we’d bunt or run to get guys over. We didn’t expect zero walks or zero hit-by-pitches, and they didn’t make any errors.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s just one of those things. You want to have a good, clean baseball game and we didn’t play bad. You’ve got to give them credit.”
DiFoggio was actually referring to the Spartans with his last statement, but the same sentiment applied to his own players.
“We can’t hold our heads [down],” he said. “We had an unbelievable season -- the best record in school history and we won our first conference championship in 20 years. Ninety-nine percent of all the high school baseball players in Illinois end their seasons with a loss.
“We happen to be among the 99 percent, but what [our guys] did this year was fantastic. They really persevered through all the adversity we had early.”
Carmody, arguably the club’s best hitter, and pitcher Brett Smith were both beset by injuries well before the Astros embarked on their second-half surge that carried them past Oak Lawn in the SSC Red standings. Shepard’s schedule was decidedly weighted toward the back end in regard to quality of opponents, but that’s when the Astros were at their best.
“I’d love to see how good we could have been with everybody playing all season and clicking heading into the playoffs,” DiFoggio said.
Editor's note: Marian Catholic also brought Brother Rice's season to an unexpectedly early halt by administering a 5-0 defeat in this past Monday's regional final. The Spartans joined Marist, Lincoln-Way North and Providence Catholic in the RedHawks' sectional.