Neuqua Valley advance to state baseball semis
CHAMPAIGN — Neuqua Valley baseball coach Robin Renner accepts that he may not have the best players in the state, but he may have something even better.
He may just have the state's best team.
The Wildcats will get the chance to prove it this weekend after Tuesday's 5-2 victory over Moline in the Class 4A University of Illinois supersectional.
Neuqua Valley (30-9) advances to the state semifinals to face Mt. Carmel (32-8) at 3 p.m. Friday in Joliet. Guaranteed the program's third state trophy, the Wildcats will try to match their Class AA state title run of 2007.
"We get to go to the state tournament for the third time and it's not because of one or two or three, or even four or five guys," Renner said. "It's because of everybody.
"There are teams that have really good players on them, that win a lot of games, but don't win championships," he said. "But there are other teams that are very good 'teams' that (win championships). And that's them."
"Them," of course, are the Wildcats, who hit up and down the lineup on Tuesday and leaned on one of their four pitchers capable of shutting down top teams on any given day. After surrendering a 2-run homer in the top of the first inning, Neuqua Valley starter Jonathan Vlk (8-0) allowed only four runners to reach base the rest of the game, including one on an error.
The Wildcats' hitters took care of the rest. Seven players had hits headed by three apiece from Jeff Evak and Dylan Goss. Four players drove in runs and three different players scored.
Combined with a defense that committed only a harmless third-inning error, Neuqua Valley continued its postseason run of rock-solid play.
"We've definitely had our bumps in the road, but we know we have the pitching to go far, and we've said that since freshman year," Evak said. "It's really cool that we get to prove it now. To go to the final four is not easy to do. Now that we're all in the groove, one through nine we're all pounding the ball. It's a good combination, hitting and pitching."
The situation looked dim at Illinois Field after Jake Viaene launched a 2-run homer to put Moline (27-11) ahead 2-0 in the first inning. Vlk settled in after that, and the Wildcats went to work on their fourth straight playoff rally from at least 2 runs down.
Goss doubled home a run in the third, and Evak added an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game at 2-2. Matt Butler and Matt Wollnik drove in fifth-inning runs, and Goss added an RBI single in the sixth to boost the Wildcats' advantage to 5-2.
"We were attacking, and I think that was the key to getting some runs," Goss said. "One through nine we're definitely hitting the ball."
Vlk took command in a 90-pitch 3-hitter with 4 strikeouts and a walk. He allowed just one runner to reach second base after the first inning.
"I've been doing that all season, and somehow I find a way to battle back and make pitches and win a game," said Vlk, who hadn't pitched in a game since May 21. "We feel comfortable with (pitchers Vlk, Cody Coll, Danny Mokrzycki and David Gerber). I got my first opportunity in the playoffs, and I proved I can come out here and battle and do good things."
Vlk's ability to keep the Maroons off balance was key to his performance. He coaxed 12 groundball outs and didn't allow a ball hit out of the infield in the final two innings.
"The top of our lineup couldn't really get anything going," said Moline center fielder Matt Brill. "We were hoping for the big hit today and we just didn't get it."
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