Libertyville waited, and waited, and waited for its high-fives and conference trophy.
Grant is still waiting.
Being patient and disciplined, the Libertyville baseball team saved its best tricks for last and used some clutch bunting to scratch out a 4-3 eight-inning victory over host Grant on Thursday afternoon in the North Suburban Conference championship game.
The Wildcats, who improve to 27-5 on the season, scored the winning run in the top of the eighth inning when catcher Ryan Jackson drove in Riley Lees from third with a 1-out, safety squeeze bunt. That came after Libertyville had tied the game in the seventh, scoring on a wild pitch with two outs.
"I've been playing with some of these guys since I was 8 years old and our mantra has always been 'Never quit,'" said Jackson, who got the start for an under-the-weather Evan Skoug, the Wildcats' Division I starting catcher. "As a team, we do a good job of playing small ball, dropping bunts down and stealing bases. Today, we weren't swinging the bats real well and it was smart to fall back on our small ball and work to manufacture runs.
"It felt good that we were able to do that. Fortunately, I was able to get that bunt down."
The picture-perfect bunt helped give Libertyville, the NSC's Lake Division champion, its first conference championship since 2001. Meanwhile, it left Grant, the Prairie Division champion, still waiting on its first conference title.
The Prairie Division is still waiting, too. Grant, which built a lead in the first inning and held it for nearly the entire game, would have become just the second Prairie Division baseball team to win the North Suburban championship, and the first since 2007.
Vernon Hills is the only Prairie Division team to have ever won the North Suburban Conference championship game.
"That's baseball, that's the joy of the game and the hate of the game right there. It can go either way at any moment," said Grant catcher Simeon Lucas, who drilled one of two homers by the Bulldogs on the day. "Going into this, no one thought we were going to win. So the fact that we stuck it out for eight innings is unbelievable. That in itself is an accomplishment.
"We just have to take this game and use it to help us moving forward (in the tournament)."
Both Libertyville and Grant have fared well in the state tournament in recent years. Grant won third place in 2012 and Libertyville finished as the state runner-up last year.
The fact that the Wildcats didn't end up in a big heap in the infield after such an emotional, come-from-behind win was a statement of sorts about having bigger fish to fry, and knowing what it takes to do so.
"We dog-piled three times last year (during the run downstate) and I told the guys not to dog-pile after this one, not yet," said winning pitcher Jeff Barton, who went the distance and upped his record on the mound to 6-0. Of Grant's final six outs, he made five of them strikeouts.
"We want to (act like we've been there before), which we have," Barton said. "We played a bad game today and still won. That just shows how much potential we have."
Libertyville fell behind quickly when Grant (24-7) put up 2 runs in the first inning off a 2-run home run to right field by centerfielder Ryan Noda.
But Grant's only other notable offense came when Lucas powered a home run into centerfield in the fourth inning. That gave the Bulldogs a 3-1 lead.
Meanwhile, Libertyville chipped away and used walks, errors and bunts to advance enough runners to finally tie the game. Conor Simpson brought that crucial tying run in off a wild pitch.
"It was one of those days where our hitters were just off-stride," Libertyville coach Jim Schurr said. "I just made a decision that (bunting) is a strength of ours and if we're not going to tattoo the baseball then we're going to use our next asset and we're going to put it down and use our foot speed."