Class 3A baseball state semifinal
Who: Grayslake Central Rams (27-13) vs. Wheaton St. Francis Spartans (24-11)
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When: 10 a.m., today
Where: Silver Cross Field, Joliet
Grayslake Central's road to Joliet: Defeated Johnsburg (4-2) and Lakes (2-1) in the Lakes regional; defeated Lake View (8-0) and Wauconda (6-4) in the Grayslake Central sectional; defeated Nazareth (4-0) in the North Central College supersectional.
Wheaton St. Francis's road to Joliet: Defeated Plano (6-3) and Kaneland (3-2) in the Kaneland regional; defeated Burlington Central (2-1) and Sycamore (1-0) in the Sycamore sectional; defeated Metamora (7-3) in the Augustana College supersectional.
State finals history: Grayslake Central placed third in the 2009 state finals, beating LaSalle-Peru (9-1) in the third-place game; Wheaton St. Francis is making its first appearance in the state finals.
Scouting Grayslake Central: The Rams have been winning on the strength of their pitching and defense. "We're not an offensive juggernaut," Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen said. "We don't make a lot of mistakes (in the field) and we have a lot of depth on the mound. I think St. Francis is the same way. It may be a very low-scoring game." … No. 2 pitcher Jack Spicer will get the start for the Rams against St. Francis. The 6-foot-6 senior is 8-3 on the mound this season. Ace Kevin Peloza, who is 8-0 and fresh off a no-hitter against Nazareth in the supersectional, will be ready for spot duty if needed, but the Rams would prefer to save him until Saturday, which would be his next scheduled start. "Kevin and Jack have given us a great 1-2 punch this season," Whalen said. "Next to Kevin, there aren't too many pitchers who are hotter than Jack right now. He's pitching really well. And at 6-foot-6, you don't see many pitchers like him with that release point. That gives him an advantage." … Spicer has a 2.46 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 54 innings pitched. Peloza has a 0.65 earned run average and 84 strikeouts in 75.2 innings pitched … Offensively, Kyle Balling leads the Rams with a .407 batting average and 44 hits. He's the only .400-plus hitter on the team. Matt Loeffl has a team-leading 26 RBI while Kyle Clark and Ryan Fontana have rolled up 25 and 24 RBI respectively.
Scouting Wheaton St. Francis: Like Grayslake Central, the Spartans have been buoyed by two dominant pitchers. Jason Sullivan is 8-1 with a 1.75 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 68 innings pitched. Jack Petrando is 6-1 with a 1.83 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 34 innings pitched. Petrando is also the team's leading hitter and the only player who is hitting better than .350. He's got a .370 batting average and also leads the Spartans with 34 hits. Josh Croci has driven in a team-leading 25 runs.
Big turnaround: Three years ago, the Grayslake Central freshman baseball team lost 20-plus games. "I got on them. I said, 'I don't know how you lose that many games. We have to get better fast,'" Grayslake Central coach Troy Whalen said. The Rams certainly have gotten better. Those freshmen are now the seniors who have gotten Grayslake Central back to state. They've also overcome a lack of experience coming into the season. Only two starters (Kyle Balling and Ryan Fontana) returned from last year. "It kind of feels like these kids have played all season like they have something to prove, to me, to each other, to everyone," Whalen said. "They stayed together and worked hard. They developed a tough skin and they learned to compete more."
Next: Winner moves to the Class 3A state championship game (11:30 a.m., Saturday) and faces the winner of the other semifinal between Mt. Vernon and Joliet Catholic. The loser plays the other semifinal loser in the third place game (9 a.m., Saturday).
-- Patricia Babcock McGraw