Jeff Vorva’s Extra Point — Turning 40 not so bad for Knights

 

 

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Zach Frieling and Chicago Christian coach Eric Brauer celebrate Frieling’s supersectional home run on May 29. The Knights took third in the state in Class 2A and were the ninth team in state history to win 40 games.

 

Chicago Christian baseball players and coaches wanted to win an Illinois High School Association Class 2A championship over the weekend.

Parents, students, alumni and fans also wanted the Knights to win the top trophy.

Heck, even the neutral sports editor of this newspaper (that would be me) wanted to see this because our area is so rich in baseball talent but only has three state titles to show for it (Brother Rice in Class AA in 1976, Marist in Class AA in 1979 and Sandburg in Class AA in 2002). It was about time for that to end.

But it didn’t happen.

On Friday, the Knights were beaten 5-2 in eight innings by St. Joseph Ogden and at Dozer Park in Peoria and after the shock of that loss wore off, they tore into Orion 9-0 on Saturday in the third-place game.

Sometimes third-place games are viewed as meaningless but in this case, the Knights won their 40th game of the season to close the campaign at 40-2.

Now I’m not going to be dumb enough to suggest that winning 40 games is better than winning a state title. But it is a rarer feat.

Chicago Christian the ninth school in the state and first since 2005   to hit that figure. For those keeping score at home, Joliet Catholic won 53 games back in 1982 when the limits on games played were not as strict as they are now.  

So 40 wins is nothing to be disappointed with.

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A lot of factors have to fall your way for this to happen. The obvious is to be talented and avoid injuries. But coach Eric Brauer and his crew also made it happen because of some other factors:

A tough schedule

Any outsider looking at  the Knights’ gaudy record could jump to the conclusion that they feasted on cupcake opponents during the season.

Not true. The Knights feasted on rugged steak early in the season.

They opened the campaign on March 16 with a 7-4 victory over Solorio Academy, a team that played in the Class 3A Supersectional in Crestwood Monday night. They beat Shepard and one of the top pitchers in the area, Western Illinois University recruit Jack Carberry, 1-0, on March 21.

A trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. was no vacation. That trip to the Ripken Experience found the Knights winning games against teams from other states by scores of 3-2, 10-1, 2-1, 1-0 and 5-4. Chicago Christian came back home and beat Class 4A school Lincoln-Way East 4-0 on April 8.

A perfect late-season loss

I never want to see a great team enter the postseason undefeated.  So when it was getting late in the season and the Knights were 32-0 I was not feeling comfortable. It’s one thing to be the top dog that everyone is gunning for. It’s another to have a long unbeaten streak hanging over your head.

When they lost 2-1 to Class 4A Lockport, it was perfect. It was not a loss to be ashamed of and it allowed the Knights to get the miserable taste of defeat into their system and allow them to refocus for the final two regular season games (a 6-0 win over Grayslake Central in an area Brauer grew up in  and a 4-1 triumph over Manteno) before diving into the playoffs.

A signature playoff win

Until this season, the Knights never won a sectional and Herscher was the thorn in their side by eliminating them in 2012, 2015 and 2016.

The Knights’ great ride could have ended with a 38-2 mark on May 27 but the Knights finally broke through with a dramatic 4-3, 11-inning victory over Herscher to win the Wilmington Sectional.

A little luck with the IHSA

The Knights, which have about 350 students at their school, are usually a Class 2A team but in 2016, they were bumped up to Class 3A. This year, they made the cutoff to head back down to Class 2A.

Pitching

This year was the first for pitch count limits and a few schools got tripped up by that. Some consider senior lefty Dan Vos as the ace of the staff and he as 11-2 with an 0.76 ERA (based on seven-inning increments) with 12 walks and 123 strikeout and pitched in a majority of important games. But senior John VanderWall also has a hand in some big games and finished 14-0 with an 0.43 ERA with six walks and 69 strikeouts. Senior Tyler Edgar was 9-0 and sophomore Nathan Deckinga 6-0 when they were called on.

Hitting

Tommy Moran headed into the state semis hitting .418 with 15 doubles, five homers and 37 RBI. Vos also drove in 37, Zach Frieling, who played in a school-record 155 games, hit four homers including a bomb to start the scoring in a 7-0 victory over Timothy Christian in the Benedictine Supersectional for the right for the Knights to play in Peoria.

Coaching

Brauer and assistants Alec Kowalczyk and Richie Santarelli kept this express train rolling through all the ups and downs that a long 42-game season can provide. But in the end, Brauer said it’s the players that were the reason for the team’s success.

“I just want to say that the Lord blessed me with a great group of players,’’ Brauer said. “They always played calm and were loose. We had a lot of experience on the field and nothing seemed to upset these guys.’’

The Knights will graduate some heavy talent – Vos, VanderWall, Edgar, Moran, Frieling, Josh Hill, Jacob Bulthuis and Jeff Mayberry. Underclassmen on the playoff roster who could be back are juniors Matthew McCarthy, Mark Schaaf, Jacob Swiney and Henry Light, sophomores Deckinga, Matthew Dieck, Matthew Stuursma, Jon Griffin and Zac Edgar.

There will be some rebuilding to be sure, but despite the lack of a state championship, this was a rare season for the Knights.

 

 

 

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