The Crystal Lake South baseball team is heating up at the right time.
Due to a slow start at the plate this season, the two-time defending co-champion Gators find themselves eliminated from contention in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference, 4 games back with 3 games to play.
However, with Saturday's 4-1 victory at Cary-Grove, CL South finished a 2-game series sweep and completed a 5-0 week, feats bound to get the attention of the other four teams assigned to the Class 4A CL South regional in two weeks.
"We struggled early on, back and forth, back and forth, but we're competing and competing at the right time," coach Brian Bogda said. "We're putting full games together, that's the big thing."
The Gators used strong pitching to sweep away Cary-Grove (18-11, 11-6), which entered the series on Friday tied for first place but now sits 2 games behind co-leaders Huntley (20-7-1, 12-4) and Jacobs (20-11, 12-4) with 2 games remaining against Jacobs.
One day after Josh Smith held the Trojans to 3 hits in a 3-2 victory, right-hander Ryan Wilkening took a no-hit bid into the final inning. His no-hitter was broken up with two outs in the seventh when Andrew Splitt lined a clean single up the middle.
Wilkening (4-2) went on to give up a run on 3 hits before he recorded the elusive final out on a flyball to center field. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound junior needed just 85 pitches to strike out 7 without a walk.
"They're a great team and we've always had a little bit of a rivalry, so I knew I had to produce," Wilkening said.
"He was really on," CL South catcher Casey Oliver said. "I mean, his changeup was probably his key pitch. It was breaking a lot, moving. We went for the sweep and, luckily, he pitched really well and helped our team to a big victory."
The Gators touched Splitt (3-4) for 4 earned runs on 8 hits and a walk in 5 innings. Splitt struck out 4, but his undoing was the two-out hit. Casey Oliver delivered a two-out single for a 1-0 lead in the first inning, and Matt Schingel drove in a second-inning run with two away and A.J. Howaniec drove in a pair with his third-inning, two-out double to the left-field wall. That staked Wilkening to a 4-0 lead.
The Trojans gained their first baserunner on an error to open the fourth inning, but Wilkening struck out the next batter before second baseman Ryan Hetherington and shortstop Garrett Bright turned a double play to end the inning.
The Trojans added 19 points to their team batting average over the previous two weeks, but they managed just 3 runs on 6 hits in 2 critical losses to the Gators.
"Hitting is all attitude at the plate," Cary-Grove coach Don Sutherland said. "We can take a million swings in practice and stuff like that and it's all an attitude that you've got to have, and we don't have that toughness that it takes to be a good hitter. We take enough swings. We just don't have a good enough approach.
"Or South's pitchers are the best pitchers that we've faced all year. That's the other possibility."