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updated: 6/12/2014 11:08 PM

Baseball's Final Four? Anything can happen

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  • South Elgin's Ryan Nutof celebrates a leadoff double to start a sixth inning rally during the Storm's 7-6 win over Evanston during the Class 4A supersectional game at Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg on Monday night.

      South Elgin's Ryan Nutof celebrates a leadoff double to start a sixth inning rally during the Storm's 7-6 win over Evanston during the Class 4A supersectional game at Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg on Monday night.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • South Elgin's Dane Toppel dives back to first base safely during the Class 4A supersectional at Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg on Monday night..

      South Elgin's Dane Toppel dives back to first base safely during the Class 4A supersectional at Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg on Monday night..
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer


Forget preseason rankings, disregard seeds and throw out the records.

None of it means a thing at this point.

Playoff baseball in the Land of Lincoln remains the least predictable of all IHSA tournaments due to the unforgiving nature of its single-elimination format. A couple of traditional state powers always seem to reach the Final Four in Joliet, but so do a couple of surprise teams that coalesce at the right time, this year being no exception.

The Class 4A semifinals at Silver Cross Field pit Providence against surprise qualifier Prairie Ridge today at 3 p.m. Upstart South Elgin tangles with state powerhouse St. Rita at 5 p.m.

Here's a look at each of the Final Four participants.

South Elgin (24-10-1)

Chicago football fans will recognize this score: 46-10.

That was the final score by which the Bears shuffled to victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, an unqualified blowout.

It also happens to be the combined total score of South Elgin's 5 playoff victories. In fact, the Storm enter the finals having scored twice as many postseason runs as St. Rita (23) and Prairie Ridge (23). Providence has scored 29.

South Elgin, in its eighth season of varsity baseball, entered the postseason hitting .287 as a team. Then the Storm caught fire offensively. In 5 playoff games they have 48 hits in 111 at-bats (.432), raising the team batting average to .304.

"We said going back to last year that if last year's team had hit a little bit, we would have gone farther than we did because we had the best overall pitching staff I've had," South Elgin coach Jim Kating said. "This group has really spiced it up. We're still pitching well, but now we're hitting the ball."

Leading hitters for the Storm include junior Dane Toppel (.410, 7 doubles, 19 RBI), senior Justin Bryski (.394, 2 HR, 18 RBI), junior Antonio Danesi (.322, 21 RBI) and senior Ryan Nutof (.320, 4 HR, 21 RBI).

Pitching is another strong point, led by Michigan-bound right-hander Ryan Nutof (8-0, 0-39 ERA, 102 K, 25 BB, 71 IP), junior right-hander Max Keough (5-1, 35 K, 16 BB, 38 IP) and senior right-hander Tyler Brown (5-3, 23.5 ERA, 30 K, 16 BB, 47.2 IP)

The question facing the South Elgin coaching staff is whether or not to pitch Nutof on three days rest against St. Rita. If so, it would be his second straight start on short rest.

Nutof conceded he wasn't as sharp on Monday against Evanston as he had been the rest of the season. His 2 earned runs allowed in that game matched his total in the previous 65 innings combined. His 4 walks were a season high and his 3 strikeouts a season low.

The other options are Keough and Brown. Keough got the win against 32-win Batavia in the Schaumburg sectional final by holding the Bulldogs to 3 runs (1 earned) on 7 hits in 4 innings. Brown then tossed 2.2 innings of hitless relief. He also picked up the win against Evanston in relief of Nutof.

"I'm caught between a rock and a hard place, but it's nice to have options," Kating said of the decision. "St. Rita is a very good team. For the last 10 years they've either been to state or a supersectional or a sectional final. They have some good ballplayers and it will be a challenge to get after them, but my guys will be more than happy to compete with them and play a good baseball game. I think whoever comes up with the clutch hit or does not make a costly mistake will win it."

St. Rita (36-4)

This is the fifth trip to the state finals for the Mustangs since 2004 and their first since 2010, when they lost the Class 4A title game to Naperville Central 10-4. They also finished second in 2009 after a 4-3 loss to New Trier.

It all starts on the mound for a St. Rita team coached by Mike Zunica, who has won 545 games in 19 seasons (.781 winning percentage.). He has the luxury of turning to senior Mike Constanzo on full rest. The left-hander, who will pitch next season for Austin Peay, is 10-2 with 44 strikeouts and a 1.64 ERA in 72.2 innings.

Costanzo held Mt. Carmel to 2 runs in 6 innings of a 4-3 sectional title game last Saturday, thereby avenging St. Rita's sectional title-game loss the previous season to the Caravan, who went on to win the state championship.

"We got our hearts broken last year, and the guys have been focused since that day," Zunica said.

Zunica said Constanzo will face South Elgin, leaving Notre Dame-bound Jake Shepski to pitch Saturday on full rest. Shepski is 7-1 with 49 strikeouts, 12 walks and a 1.35 ERA in 46.2 innings. He went the distance in Monday's 2-1 supersectional victory over Downers Grove South.

Offensively, the Mustangs are led by sophomore leadoff man Danny Gleaves (.541, 7 doubles, 29 steals, 46 runs), senior Nick Goldsmith (.413, 9 doubles, 9 HR) and Shepski (.405, 12 doubles, 7 triples, 5 HR). The Mustangs don't know much about the Storm.

"We know that they're a tough team, they play scrappy and they have a couple of big arms," Zunica said. "And I know they've been playing good baseball.

"We have a great group. We're fortunate to have great kids year in and year out. This is a group we'd have at the top of the list as far as makeup and character."

Prairie Ridge (24-16)

The Wolves are back in the state finals for the first time since the Crystal Lake school won the Class 4A title in 2008.

The biggest surprise of the tournament, Prairie Ridge was 19-16 heading into the postseason after taking its lumps against top-notch competition in the tough Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference.

"What this team has done has shocked the heck out of me," said Prairie Ridge coach Glen Pecoraro, whose club was 12-15 before winning 12 of its last 13 games, including the last 10 straight. "We're just riding the wave. We'll go to Joliet and try to win a championship. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, we're playing with house money. No one expected this. That's why it's so special."

Pecoraro openly admits he has coached several teams that possessed better overall talent than this squad in his two stints as Prairie Ridge coach between 1998-2006 and 2010-present. Other longtime observers of his program recognize the same thing.

"Prairie Ridge is doing it with grit and determination," said Cary-Grove coach Don Sutherland, an IHSBCA hall-of-famer whose team split two meetings with the Wolves this season and defeated South Elgin. "Talent-wise, there have got to be a half dozen teams they've had that have been more talented. This team really had to come together to do well. Glen does a great job coaching them and he always has."

If the Wolves keep to their playoff pitching rotation, left-hander Austin Covers should get the nod against Providence, though Pecoraro said senior John Myers and sophomore John Tieman are also options. Covers dominated Jacobs last Saturday in a sectional title game, allowing just 3 hits in 6 innings of a 4-1 win. Since the Southern Illinois-bound senior began taking the mound at midseason, he is 3-0 with a 0.33 ERA, 40 strikeouts and 14 walks in 33.1 innings.

Ben Cilano, a 6-foot-2 junior right-hander who defeated FVC Valley champion Huntley in a sectional semifinal, will be available Saturday on full rest.

The Wolves have done it with pitching and defense. The only regular in the lineup batting above .300 is left-handed hitter Marcus Sargeant (.319). That makes these Wolves underdogs, a role to which they've become accustomed.

"Records don't mean much at this point," Pecoraro said. "We'll go in thinking we have a chance and see what happens."

Providence (26-14)

The Celtics make their seventh trip to the state finals and their first since 2011, when they lost to Lyons 8-3 in the state championship game.

Providence was 7 games above .500 entering the playoffs after it dropped 3 straight games before the IHSA tournament began, but most of those losses could be considered "quality" losses since 13 were dealt by teams ranked at some point this season in Prep Baseball Report's top 20.

"The kids have faced a lot of challenges and adversity this year, but this run has shown the value of playing the tough schedule that we do," Providence coach Mark Smith said.

Providence's top player is 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander Jake Godfrey. Committed to LSU, Godfrey was selected in the 21st round of the Major League Baseball first-year player draft by Atlanta. He threw a 3-hitter in Monday's 7-5 victory over Edwardsville at the University of Illinois supersectional.

The Celtics are led offensively by Kent State signee Dylan Rosa. The senior rescued the Celtics from a 5-3 deficit with one out in the bottom of the seventh against Edwardsville with a walk-off grand slam. Rosa is hitting .403 (52-for-129) with 14 doubles, 2 triples, 10 home runs and 52 RBI.

Another offensive leader is Middle Tennessee State recruit Phil Kunsa (.359, 12 doubles, 11 HR, 46 RBI). He homered twice against Lincoln-Way North in the Andrew sectional title game, leading to a 9-3 victory.

The Celtics aren't familiar with Prairie Ridge beyond what they've read.

"I don't know much about them, but I know you've got to be good to get to this point," Smith said. "From what I've seen and read they're having a similar run like us: not a pretty record but getting it done when it matters."

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