If another run downstate is again in the cards for the Grant baseball team, you'd better believe Jordan Villarreal will be cheering louder than anyone else.
After all, his cheers were barely heard last year. Or understood.
Villarreal, the Bulldogs' senior shortstop, missed the icing on the cake in 2012 when Grant capped an improbable state tournament run with a third-place finish in the Class 4A finals. During a dominating 7-0 supersectional win over Schaumburg that cinched the finals berth, Villarreal broke his jaw when a ball hit him in the face.
He spent the next six weeks with his jaw wired shut. Worse than having to eat every meal from a blender, he was forced to sit out the two state finals games at Silver Cross Field in Joliet.
"I had to watch our state games from the dugout and I would cheer, but no one even knew what I was saying," said Villarreal, who can laugh about it now. "It was hard. I joke with the guys that we have to get back downstate this year so that I can play this time.
"That's our goal anyway, though. We want to go back and, for us, it's realistic now since we've been there already."
What a difference a year, and some magic, makes.
Grant isn't accustomed to such a mindset, where runs downstate are more than mere pipe dreams. The Bulldogs entered last season coming off a 10-21 record in 2011. They remained inconsistent for much of 2012, barely finishing above .500 in the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division (7-5). At one point, they lost five of seven games.
"But we also won nine games in a row last year," said Grant coach Dave Behm, whose team entered the state tournament with a 20-11 record. "So I knew we had talent and that we could play and that we could string wins together."
That's exactly what the Bulldogs did in the state tournament. They got hot at just the right time. Add in a few lucky plays, such as a triple play in one tournament game and a walk-off homer in another, and this program, which had won only one regional title (2001) before last season, now has a new lease on life.
Grant, which returns almost its entire starting lineup, including steals king Jake Ring and standout pitcher Jacob Trumpis (8-2 in 2012), is suddenly the team to beat in the Prairie Division. And the Bulldogs know it.
"I think we definitely have a lot more confidence going into this season," senior infielder Brent Spohr said. "What happened last year shows us that hard work pays off and it's made us more excited to work even harder so that we can see what happens this year. It's been a motivation for us."
During last year's extended tournament run, the Bulldogs drew motivation from an unlikely place: their sorrow.
At the beginning of last school year, they lost longtime assistant coach Craig Griffis. He died due to complications from diabetes and just missed out on Grant's magic.
He was there in spirit, though.
"That was really rough because Coach Griffis had been around the program for so long," Villarreal said. "He was always talking to us about how we needed to get tougher. I think when we were going through some of our tough times last year, we would think about that and that pushed us through.
"I remember being down to South Elgin 7-0 (in the sectional championship game) and it seemed really bad. But we just got tougher and we pulled through (and won 12-11). We seemed to have a lot of things happen like that last year. It was pretty amazing."
Word spread quickly about the never-say-die Bulldogs, who brought hundreds of fans with them from the community to Joliet. When they returned home with a police escort, they were suddenly mini-celebrities, congratulated in local stores and idolized by the youth players in town.
Attendance at Grant's baseball camp for kids last summer was way above normal.
"I saw a lot of the youth players out at our supersectional game and even downstate," Spohr said. "That was pretty cool. A lot of people were showing interest in our program and I think that will continue into this season. A lot of people are telling me that they're going to be super fans this year and come to all our games."
At home games, fans will be reminded of last year's run any time they look towards home plate. A huge banner commemorating the Bulldogs' 2012 Class 4A third place finish will be hanging on the backstop fence.
"Obviously last year was very special for us," said Behm, a Grant graduate who happens to have played on Grant's only other regional championship team. "It was a ton of fun going through all those tournament games with the kids.
"We have some really good players in our program and I think there was some excitement building even before last season, but last season really set a clear path for what kind of program we want to have here. We'll be drawing on all of the experiences we went through last season for a long time."
Well, except for one, of course.
No more broken jaws. Villarreal says he couldn't bear to eat any more food that comes from a blender.
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