There were a lot of nervous moments for the St. Francis baseball team Wednesday afternoon at the Class 3A Grayslake Central sectional.
But when the dust had cleared, the Spartans celebrated a 6-5 semifinal victory over Ridgewood in a contest that featured plenty of suspense and drama.
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St. Francis (24-12) advances to the sectional championship game at 11 a.m. Saturday against either Vernon Hills or Richmond-Burton.
Ridgewood (16-15) jumped out to a 1-0 lead against St. Francis starter Eric Stout as the Rebels scored on 1 hit in the top of the first with the benefit of three walks by the left-hander.
The Spartans bounced right back to tie the game in the bottom of the first as a sacrifice fly by cleanup hitter Lonnie Hicks drove in leadoff hitter K.C. Zimmmerman, who had walked and moved to third on a single by Stout and a walk by Jack Petrando.
The game really got interesting in the bottom of the fourth when St. Francis knocked Ridgewood freshman starter Anthony Mroz out of the game with a single by Tom Ameche, an infield hit by Jack Roback and an RBI double by Ryan Acciavatti. Roback scored and Acciavatti moved to third on the play when the Rebels botched the relay from center field.
A wild pitch by Ridgewood reliever Billy Balatsos made the score 4-1 before a one-out RBI single by Stout drove in Preston Preusser, who had walked earlier in the wild rally. But when the ball got past the right fielder, Joel Birch also scored all the way from first base after walking for a 6-1 advantage.
St. Francis made the lead hold up -- barely.
Ridgewood came right back in the top of the fifth with 4 runs on just 2 hits as a fielding error on a routine grounder started the Rebels' comeback.
After the error Stout walked the next two batters and he was replaced by Austin Wilkens, who walked the first batter he faced to make the score 6-2. A fielder's choice RBI by Mroz made the score 6-3 before a wild pitch cut the gap to 6-4. Then an RBI single by Brian Costello made the score 6-5, but a great throw by St. Francis center fielder Scott Purdom cut down what would have been the tying run at home plate.
After walking the first man he faced in relief, Roback got the third out of the inning on a popout to finally end the rally and preserve the 1-run lead.
"We played well enough to win," said St. Francis coach Rich Janor. "The guys didn't do everything perfect, but we had some big hits and it was kind of a bend-not-break situation for us. In the end we made the pitches to win and this is the first time in school history we're in the sectional finals."
While Stout got the win, Roback got the save when he came through in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
In the sixth Ridgewood had men on second and third with one out before a grounder back to the mound and a flyout to deep center field got Roback out of the jam.
In the seventh, with a man on second and one out, he got a groundout to second base and a popout to seal the exciting victory. Both teams had 6 hits with Ridgewood drawing 8 walks to 7 for the Spartans.
"It was a fun game and we're just glad we got the win," Roback said. "I was just taking it one step at a time and I told myself, 'I'm not letting this be my last high school game,' and I pulled through."
St. Francis had just enough depth and poise to pull it out in the end.
"This is the time of the season you have to rely on depth a little bit," Janor said. "We had a lot of different guys get the job done."