Baseball: Neuqua Valley advances with wild win over Yorkville

Matt Knapczyk was hit by a pitch in the foot, and flipped his bat and yelled toward the Neuqua Valley dugout like he just hit a walk-off homer.

That energy is authentic, and isn’t by accident.

“I love the game, I’ve played it for so long,” said the Neuqua Valley senior center fielder, “and I just love winning. It made the emotions come out.”

Knapczyk emptied the tank on Thursday. He reached base five times, the fifth time beating out an infield single to start his team’s game-winning rally.

The 12th-seeded Wildcats twice blew leads to fifth-seeded Yorkville, but a four-run seventh was the difference in a wild 11-7 win in the Class 4A Neuqua Valley Regional semifinal.

Neuqua (15-19), after a regular season with the most losses in program history, will nonetheless play for its 16th regional title Saturday against 14th-seeded West Aurora, which knocked off fourth-seeded Lockport Wednesday.

And the Wildcats played on Saturday with the fire of a team not done playing.

“There is so much heart on this team,” Knapczyk said. “Everybody cares about the game.”

After Yorkville (21-12) tied it for the second time on Aaron Klemm’s two-run single in the bottom of the sixth, Knapczyk beat out a chopper between the mound and first base to start the Neuqua seventh.

Andrew Gould followed with a single, and Mike Langan knocked in Knapczyk with the go-ahead run.

Langan’s was a day of highs and lows.

He struck out his first three at-bats, but tripled and scored at the time the go-ahead run in the sixth, then singled in the eventual game-winner in the seventh.

“I was a little anxious with some pitches that I normally wouldn’t be,” Langan said. “I had to flush those mistakes I made and keep being me. I knew I could get those hits. Just thinking line drive, opposite way.”

Yorkville (21-12) got behind 5-1 early, and made its contributions to that deficit with 10 walks issued by Foxes’ pitchers.

But the Foxes, as they have throughout the season, kept coming back.

Nate Harris, Yorkville’s starting pitcher, doubled in Jackson Roberts, and Kameron Yearsley singled in Harris in a four-run fifth that tied it at 5-5 on Jaelen Veliz’s two-run single.

After Neuqua scored two runs in the top of the sixth, Yorkville came right back with Klemm’s two-run single after the Wildcats chose to intentionally walk Yearsley.

“That is one of the hallmarks of this group, and always has been,” Yorkville coach Tom Cerven said. “No matter how far we get down, there is a belief that we’re going to come back at some point and put up a fight.”

Yorkville, though, twice couldn’t put up a shutdown inning after tying the score. Neuqua put the leadoff man on in five of seven innings, with the first five batters singling in the four-run seventh as the Foxes used four pitchers.

“Walks and later in the game we misplayed some balls,” Cerven said. “That entire side of the ball today wasn’t particularly good. In a single elimination game, all it takes is one day like that.”

Knapczyk, who squeezed the final out in center and lost his cap bounding in the outfield, seemed to be at the center of all the action for Neuqua.

He doubled to start the game, the first of his four hits, and when he reached he was a menace on the bases with three stolen bases.

Hampered by injuries, Knapczyk played in just 11 games last year as a junior. The Parkland commit played Thursday like a kid who values his time left on the high school field.

“I’m always trying to cause chaos for the pitcher, takes bases whenever I can,” Knapczyk said. “It was definitely terrible last year not playing. I was doing great, and I love playing. It makes it so much more meaningful know because I missed those games.”

Paul Feret also reached base five times with a single in the seventh and Gould three times for Neuqua. Yearsley reached base four times and Harris had two doubles for Yorkville.

Cerven couldn’t feel too terribly about a team that overcame a ton of adversity, including a rash of injuries to its pitching staff and a season-ender early in the spring to Minnesota-bound ace Simon Skroch.

“We won 21 games and three of our top four pitchers in the regular season only threw I think 16 innings,” Cerven said. “If you’re going to tell me they threw 16 and we would have won 21 I would have laughed at you. Credit to their grit and fight. Today wasn’t our day.”

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