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updated: 5/31/2014 5:43 PM

Unlikely heroes lead Kaneland to regional title

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Using the Kaneland baseball team's lingo, Nick Stahl is known as a "P.O." -- pitcher only.

The senior entered the ninth inning of Saturday's Class 3A Plano regional championship game with exactly one at-bat on the season.

"He is a pitcher only to the extreme," Kaneland coach Brian Aversa said. "We've got about five of those guys who do not waste time in the cages. They know their role, they relish it."

Who needs any batting practice? Evidently not Stahl who took a big swing at a 3-2 fastball and hit it over the center-field fence for a 2-run home run in the Knights' thrilling 4-1 win in 9 innings over No. 1 seed St. Francis.

It was just Stahl's second at-bat of the season and came only because he had entered the game in relief following Curtis Thorson and Nate Hopkins to the mound.

"I can't explain it," Stahl said. "I actually thought he caught it at first."

That would be St. Francis center fielder Nick Dama, who did everything he could to catch the ball, crashing into the center-field fence and just missing a spectacular catch.

Instead Stahl took an unlikely stroll around the bases while the Kaneland bench and Knights fans went crazy in both delight and shock.

"It was unbelievable," Aversa said. "That was the craziest game. Could never script that ever. Hats off to Nick Stahl.

"I told him there was a chance he would come up and he said, 'What do you want me to do coach, take the whole time?' And I said, 'No.' He said, 'How about I take until I get a strike?' That sounds good. I said, 'Make sure you swing at one that is your pitch' and he put a charge into one. We couldn't have scripted that any better."

Kaneland (18-15) advances to the Class 4A Rochelle sectional where it will play Sycamore at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Kaneland won two of three from Sycamore this year.

The Knights' only other regional championship came in 2011 -- and they went on to win the state title that year.

St. Francis (22-11) beat Kaneland 3-2 in last year's regional final.

"It feels really good especially after last year," Aversa said. "It was great for our guys to battle and go extras and still come back. Some heroes you wouldn't expect getting the job done. It's a sweet win. They (St. Francis) are a great team every year."

The Spartans nearly took a 1-0 lead in the first. With runners at first and third and two outs the runner on first got in a rundown but was tagged out before the runner from third slid home.

St. Francis also ran into the third out in the third inning, while the Knights' best chance in the first five innings was thwarted when St. Francis picked a Kaneland runner off second base.

"In a big game like this every out counts and every runner counts," St. Francis coach Rich Janor said. "It's a game of little things. We should have taken care of business in the first seven innings."

St. Francis finally broke the scoreless tie in the fifth. Jack Ciombor singled with one out and moved to second on a bunt by Dama.

The Knights elected to walk Jason Sullivan intentionally, and Zach Prociuk made them pay with an RBI single down the third-base line.

Kaneland answered in the top of the sixth. Thorson led off with an infield single and scored from first when Ty Carlson singled to center.

The center fielder bobbled the ball and Thorson broke for third. When the throw to third sailed high, Thorson scored on the error.

The game stayed 1-1 until Kaneland's 3-run ninth. The rally came after Stahl entered the game with two outs and two on in the seventh -- Kaneland again electing to walk Sullivan intentionally and this time Stahl retired Prociuk on a soft liner to second.

"I just trusted myself and hit my spots when I needed and let my defense work," Stahl said.

Sullivan pitched a gem for the Spartans, allowing just the 1 unearned run on 4 hits and 1 walk through 8 innings, striking out five.

"Our pitcher certainly pitched well enough to win," Janor said. "He certainly deserved better.

"We had a lot of opportunities with runners in scoring position and just couldn't get the big hit. We let these guys hang around and they are an excellent, excellent team and they obviously broke through in the late innings."

Nick Stratman was hit by a pitch with one out in the ninth. Joe Panico followed by lacing a double to the gap in left-center to score Stratman, then Panico came home on Stahl's home run to make it 4-1.

"It wasn't just on me, it was a team win, the kid left me a fastball and I took advantage of it," Panico said. "But mostly it was a team win. He (Sullivan) shut us down most of the game."

The Spartans put runners at second and third with no outs in the bottom of the ninth before Stahl retired the final three hitters to complete an improbable victory.

"This is something to be proud of and we still have work to do," Aversa said.

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