Neuqua Valley's baseball program struggled for years to reach the summer state finals despite bringing a parade of strong teams to the regional.
Now, after Thursday's 3-1 win over Naperville Central in the regional championship game at Glenbard South, the Wildcats will make their second straight trip to the Elite Eight.
Neuqua Valley begins the double-elimination format of the Phil Lawler Summer Classic at 10 a.m. Monday at Benedictine University in Lisle.
"I can't explain it, I really can't," Wildcats coach Robin Renner said of his team's summer turnaround the last two years. "I really just love our team. I love our team's energy, I love our team's attitude, I love our team's ability. Everything about it."
Neuqua Valley starter Eric Littler shut down a Naperville Central offense that piled up 27 runs in its previous three games. Littler allowed 3 hits and a walk over 6 innings while striking out three.
Littler retired eight straight before being relieved by Wildcats ace Nick Blackburn in the seventh inning. After a two-out walk, Blackburn struck out the final batter to send Neuqua Valley into next week's action.
"It feels great," Littler said. "We had great chemistry today as a team. We had a couple players that aren't usually in our starting lineup, and they came through with big hits."
Designated hitter David Gerber and catcher Dylan Goss missed Thursday's game because of academic commitments, but backup catcher Alex Wolanski and designated hitter Matt Wollnik came through. Wollnik went 3-for-3 with an RBI double in the first inning, and he scored on Tanner Giesel's single to put the Wildcats ahead 2-0.
Naperville Central pulled within 2-1 in the top of the fourth inning on Jeff Schank's RBI groundout following a balk. The Wildcats got the run back in the bottom of the inning when a balk scored Nick Iarrobino, who had 2 of Neuqua Valley's 9 hits.
Ross Murphy went 2-for-3 for Naperville Central, which advanced only two runners to third base against Littler and the Wildcats' errorless defense.
"We hit a couple of balls hard, not enough, but we seemed to hit them at people," said Naperville Central coach Mike Stock. "Sometimes you just need one person to step up and hit the ball hard, and everybody else would relax. And we didn't get it today. We just didn't get that today, and give their kid credit."