St. Viator baseball coach Mike Manno had a vision, and Mike Wittich and Brett DeSelm made it a reality.
Wittich delivered a huge hit and DeSelm closed the door with his pitching effort in the last inning as St. Viator won the Class 3A state championship with a thrilling 10-8 victory over Marian Catholic on Saturday at Slammers Stadium in Joliet.
It was the first state baseball championship for St. Viator (25-15) in school history, eclipsing the only previous title-game appearance, which ended with a runner-up finish in 1965.
"No one ever said a state championship was supposed to be easy," said St. Viator coach Mike Manno, whose team had an 8-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth, only to watch Marian Catholic (24-16) rally to tie the game. "I told the kids after that inning that it would be difficult, and that we had to go earn it again. I was almost hoping for a rain delay at that point."
Wittich provided the kind of rain the Lions needed.
With two outs and runners on first and second, Wittich reached out at a low pitch and poked a slowly falling ball to the gap in left-center. The Marian outfielders converged and both dove for the ball, which barely eluded them.
Chris Dolecki (running for John Finnegan, who'd reached base after an errant throw on a possible inning-ending double play) scored from second. Courtesy runner Jake Sinnema (running for DeSelm) scored from first to put the Lions back up on top 10-8.
"That was the best double of my life," Wittich said. "It was enough. That was all that matters.
"I knew I was going to get a hit coming up. I told myself I could do it and I had that mindset at the plate."
DeSelm, who had not pitched in four weeks, relieved in the bottom of the sixth. But he looked much more comfortable in the seventh.
A superb catch by left fielder Joe Sarnello helped that comfort level. Even after a walk, DeSelm looked in command, getting another fly out to Sarnello before Cori Korab caught the final flyball and the celebration began.
"I feel great right now," DeSelm said. "This is a great end to a great run for all of us. We all have been playing since we were 5. It was a beautiful way to end this."
DeSelm, a senior who usually plays first base, said he was not surprised he got the call to pitch in relief.
"I told coach Manno at practice that if he needed someone to finish the game I was ready," DeSelm said. "I came in and I knew I could pick my teammates up."
Manno had almost foreseen this type of finish.
When the pairings were announced, Manno looked saw that his team would most likely have to face Carmel, Benet and Marian -- all teams that the Lions had lost to in East Suburban Catholic Conference play.
"I had a vision that we would have a path of Carmel," Manno said. "They beat us twice -- we would overcome that. Same with Benet. I said we would see Marian in the championship."
But even Manno could not have envisioned the superb hitting team the Lions became in the playoffs. Especially in light of the fact that they had just 2 hits in their final regular-season game against Hersey.
But after that, the Lions went on a tear. The 16 hits they had on Saturday brought their playoff total to 90, with a postseason batting average of .440 and a slugging percentage of .599.
Every player in the batting order had a hit against Marian Catholic. DeSelm and Sarnello each had 3 hits, and Casey Kmet, Hunter Johnson and Wittich had 2 apiece.
"We are hitting the ball like crazy," Casey Kmet said. "We had 16 hits in a state championship game. That is awesome."
Casey Kmet, who doubled to lead off the game, scored on Bryce Hellgeth's single to make it 1-0.
Cole Kmet's sacrifice fly in the third made it 2-0, scoring Sarnello, who had singled earlier.
The Lions doubled their lead in the fourth.
Jack Mahoney singled and was moved to second on a sacrifice by Finnegan. He then scored DeSelm's single and DeSelm moved up to second on the throw. Sinnema, running for DeSelm, scored on Sarnello's single and the Lions were beginning to feel good.
"I just wanted to win really bad," Sarnello said. "I just wanted to do whatever I could to help this team win."
Marian tallied in the bottom of the inning to cut the lead to 4-1. Despite that, Hellgeth, who was the St. Viator starter, was breezing along.
"It was hard work out there," said Hellgeth, who went 5⅓ innings and allowed 7 hits while striking out three. "I had faith in myself, and so did my teammates. I was able to keep my pitches down and get some gutsy defense behind me."
And St. Viator kept adding to the lead. DeSelm tripled to the right-field gap with the bases loaded, scoring Johnson, Vince Burdi and Dolecki. DeSelm came home on a Wittich single, and the the Lions had a comfortable 8-1 lead.
"I was pretty tired when I got to third base," DeSelm said. "I just waited back. I knew he had a good changeup. It ended up being a fastball, so I poked into right center."
But there was a disturbance in the force.
"I didn't expect anything different from Marian Catholic," Manno said. "I never felt comfortable with an 8-1 lead."
Marian Catholic took advantage of a tiring Hellgeth and a bullpen that had not been needed much in the last few weeks.
The Spartans scored 7 times to tie the game. They were able to do so thanks to some timely hitting, a couple of errors, a flyball that was lost in the sun and a pair of wild pitches.
After Manno said a few things to his team, Cole Kmet spoke.
"I just said that we needed to relax," Kmet said. "We have to even out the momentum and let's get some hits and wins this thing."
The Lions then went out and did what they needed to do to bring the school its first state championship since the golf team won in 2009. St. Viator is the first Cook County-area baseball team to win a state title since Paul Groot and Schaumburg did it in 1997.
It was also a sweet ending for St. Viator principal Eileen Manno, Mike Manno's mom. She retired this year after 35 years with the school, and her last official act was receiving a first-place state medallion.
"I couldn't be prouder of our boys and our coaches," Eileen Manno said. "The way the played the game -- it was sweet for the Mannos today."