Getting downstate is nice for any baseball player.
But it's always a bit nicer for those who actually get to play a lot along the way.
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That's the biggest difference for the seniors at Nazareth this year compared to their experience of getting to the big dance last year as juniors.
Nazareth advanced downstate in 2011 with a starting lineup of nothing but seniors.
Pitcher Dom Purpura, for instance, pitched here and there last year as a junior. He had nothing like the role he has this season.
The 6-foot-4 lefty pitched a complete game and dominated all but one inning in leading Nazareth back to the state finals with a 7-2 victory over Grayslake Central in the North Central College supersectional in Naperville.
The Roadrunners, who lost in the state semifinals last year, improve to 30-9 on the season and will play Marian Catholic at noon Friday at Silver Cross Field in Joliet. Grayslake Central, making its first supersectional appearance since breaking through to that round in 2009, wraps up the season with a 30-10 record.
"Every single kid who was on the field today, this is their first year of really playing (full-time) varsity baseball and starting at their positions," said Purpura, who rolled up 8 strikeouts and did not allow a walk. "No one expected us to be here (again) this year, but we expected it out of ourselves. We worked hard and we have chemistry. We're all best friends and we play for each other."
As tough as Purpura was, Grayslake Central hung right in there with Nazareth at first. Rams starter Christian Edwards surrendered only 2 hits through the first three innings and the game was scoreless heading into the fourth.
"I'm proud of Christian," Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen said. "But unfortunately we weren't able to stay close."
Suddenly, after three sleepy innings, the Roadrunners were loading up on baserunners.
Eight straight batters got on, six on singles. Nazareth scored a total of 4 runs, thanks in part to 2 RBI by Mark Perrone. Perrone, the Roadrunners' No. 9 hitter, wound up going 3-for-4 with a double and 3 RBI.
"I've never had a game like this. It came at the right time," Perrone said with a smile. "I just got hot and put the ball in play.
"We all knew we had a good team and we've just kept playing good baseball. It means so much to have a chance this year (to play) with this group of guys."
Nazareth scored 2 more runs in the sixth, again with help from Perrone. His double brought in a run moments after Purpura drove in Ryan Marske from third. Marske had opened the inning with a triple.
Purpura, who will be playing next year at Carthage College, also drove in the Roadrunners' final run with a single in the top of the seventh inning.
"Kudos to them. They were making the plays when they needed to," Grayslake Central senior catcher Kristian Meehan said. "It was tough being there behind the dish seeing (Nazareth's big innings). They hit the ball well."
So did Meehan. He was the only Grayslake Central player to crack Purpura consistently. He went 3-for-3 on the day and drove in the Rams' first run in their 2-run sixth inning. His double brought in Jon Gurchak, who had doubled in the previous at-bat.
Sean Boban then brought in Meehan.
"I think we did a lot better this season than we were expected to," Meehan said. "As a team, we all played really well together. It was a great season and I love these guys. I've been playing with them since I was 5 years old. It's tough saying goodbye."