Nobody saw an all-District 300 sectional title game between rivals Jacobs and Dundee-Crown coming, which is why Saturday morning's 10 a.m. baseball game at Huntley High School is so intriguing.
Jacobs (24-11) was a bona fide threat to reach the Sweet 16 all along. The Golden Eagles jelled late last season as new coach Jamie Murray blended a talented junior class with some key senior contributors. Though they lost 3-2 to Crystal Lake South in an intense regional title game last May, forward momentum had clearly been gained.
Jacobs went 25-4 in summer-league play, culminating in a state semifinal appearance at the Phil Lawler Classic. The 2013 spring season couldn't arrive fast enough.
The Golden Eagles lost a talented, veteran shortstop right before the season started for off-the-field reasons, but they persevered and won 20 games for the first time. They subsequently claimed the first regional championship in the program's 37-year history by scoring 17 runs on 25 hits in wins against CL South and Barrington.
Jacobs followed up Thursday by rallying for 2 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to beat Hononegah 3-2 in a thrilling sectional semifinal.
With only 15 other schools still alive in Class 4A, which opponent does Jacobs draw for its first sectional title-game appearance? Its greatest rival, of course.
Dundee-Crown (11-18) advancing to the sectional championship game is the surprising part of this equation. Though the Chargers have enjoyed far more state tournament success through the years than their sister school -- highlighted by state finals appearances in 2001 and 2007 -- the relatively young team gave no inkling it was poised to make a postseason run.
The Chargers entered the playoffs with 8 victories, but that record should be graded on a curve, just like D-C's .265 team batting average and 4.82 staff ERA.
Why? Because the conference D-C played in was remarkably tough. The seven-team Valley Division of the FVC is among the strongest leagues in the state annually, but it arguably boasted more across-the-board talent and depth this year than ever before. Five FVC Valley teams won 20 games: Huntley (25-7), Crystal Lake South (21-7), Prairie Ridge (25-12), McHenry (23-15) and Jacobs. Fifth-place Cary-Grove finished 19-12.
Jacobs placed sixth in the division and Dundee-Crown was last. That its sixth and seventh-place teams are among the last standing in Class 4A is perhaps the greatest testament to the FVC Valley's overall strength.
Playing such tough competition apparently readied the Chargers for the playoffs. They opened with a 10-0 drubbing of DeKalb. After going 1-11 against its FVC Valley mates in regular-season play, D-C won consecutive playoff stunners against Valley Division powers Huntley (3-0) and Prairie Ridge (15-4). Now they aim to take down another of their FVC Valley brethren.
"I think we have a really good team and we really didn't get to show it during the regular season," junior pitcher Ahren Ludwig said. "But we're having a good time and we're coming out and playing our game, the game I think we should have been playing the whole season."
"We didn't start off the season very well, but now that we're in sectionals we're just picking it up and having a great time, even the bench guys," D-C junior pitcher Chase Bloch said. "We're loving this."
Jacobs defeated Dundee-Crown 7-0 and 5-0 two weeks ago, results that mean exactly nothing now.
"They're 3-0, we're 3-0 in the postseason," Murray said. "I don't care about the regular season. Obviously, they're a totally different team."
No coach knows the Golden Eagles quite as well as Anderson. He was the Jacobs sophomore coach two years ago and, therefore, coached the majority of Jacobs' now-graduated seniors. That doesn't mean he will implement a specific plan to stop them any more than he has for D-C's previous 3 playoff victories.
"I don't know if there really is a plan," Anderson said after the Prairie Ridge game. "Just go out and play. And that's what our kids are doing."
"Jon and I have coached together, we've done summer ball together," Murray said. "We were part of (the Jacobs) program together. I'm happy for his guys, but at the same time we'll get a game plan together and try to win."
Both teams have their respective winning pitchers from last Saturday's regional championship games available on full rest. Jacobs is expected to throw senior right-hander Nick Ledinsky (6-2, 2.92 ERA), who went the distance against Barrington. Dundee-Crown is expected to counter with junior left-hander Vince Damato (4-3, 4.92), who shut out Huntley on 4 hits.
A third straight upset of a 20-win team would advance Dundee-Crown to the Elite Eight for the third time in program history.
"It's definitely been a fun run, but we want to continue the run and stay hungry," veteran D-C catcher Dylan Kissack said. "It's just been a great overall effort the past few games."
A victory by Jacobs would clinch the program's first appearance in a state quarterfinal.
"They're coming out hungry from what Dylan has said," Jacobs senior catcher Aaron Meciej said. "They've got great kids, great coaches. I think it's going to be a really good game."
The winner will face either St. Charles East (25-11) or Wheaton North (27-8) at Rockford RiverHawks Stadium on Monday at 7 p.m.
That's if District 300 doesn't implode from the excitement first.
Follow Jerry on Twitter: @jerfitzpatrick