Baseball: Aurora Christian punches ticket back to state tournament
A Monday rainout forced Aurora Christian baseball coach Andy Zorger to make a tough choice Tuesday.
It could not have worked out any better.
The Eagles avenged a 2-game, regular-season sweep with a 5-2 victory over Bishop McNamara in a Class 2A supersectional played at Plunkett Park in Elmhurst.
Zorger's dilemma? How long to pitch Purdue-committed right-hander Jake Kuntzendorf. The junior won the 1A state championship game last year 5-1 by holding Valmeyer to an unearned run on 4 hits.
Aurora Christian (19-9-1) was all set to pitch Kuntzendorf (7-2) against Bishop McNamara (25-9) Monday before torrential rains forced a postponement. Had the ace pitched and won Monday, he would have been available for the full complement of 115 pitches on Saturday, based on IHSA pitch-count guidelines.
Because Mother Nature pushed the game to Tuesday, Zorger could only use Kuntzendorf for 75 pitches or the 6-foot-2, 190-pound hurler would be unavailable for a possible championship game downstate.
Kuntzendorf had fired 68 pitches and allowed no hits when he returned to the mound in the sixth inning, leading 5-0. After he fanned the leadoff batter for his 10th strikeout, Zorger made the tough call. The 12th-year coach signaled for off-speed specialist Hunter Thompson to relieve.
"We kept going back and forth about it," Zorger said. "If we'd only had a 3-run lead, I probably would have stuck with Jake. But since we got the five, I'm like, OK, we've got some wiggle room."
That wiggle room tightened when Broghan O'Connor singled to drive in Dominik Koziol and Tyler Hiller to trim the deficit to 5-2.
McNamara No. 6 hitter Jared Born then stepped to the plate as the potential tying run with runners at the corners and two outs. He grounded a 3-hopper past diving Aurora Christian third baseman Declan Palmquist, but shortstop Trey Madsen had his back.
Madsen -- a three-sport athlete who piled up 1,039 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last fall and played in 27 games for a regional championship basketball team -- scooped up the ball and threw across his body in one motion. His throw nipped Born by a quarter step to preserve the 3-run lead.
"That was huge. Just big," Thompson said.
"Just unbelievable," Zorger said. "I was pumped for that. That kept the run (from scoring) and they were in the bottom of the order, too."
Thompson retired the Fightin' Irish in order in the seventh inning. The right-hander struck out the last two batters he faced to set off a celebration at the mound.
The victory means a return trip to the state finals for 2018 Class 1A champion Aurora Christian. The Eagles will play Pleasant Plains (25-11) in a state semifinal at Dozer Park in Peoria on Friday at 3 p.m. The winner plays the Teutopolis-Rock Island Alleman winner for the Class 2A title Saturday at 5 p.m.
"We've been there before so now we have that mentality, that bulldog mentality," Kuntzendorf said. "You ain't takin' anybody's stuff. You're just playing for your teammates and God."
Kuntzendorf allowed two baserunners via a walk and an error in 5⅓ innings. He said he had his "A game." It was a far cry from his performance in an 8-5 loss to Bishop McNamara on May 11, when he allowed 7 earned runs on 9 hits and walked a pair in 5 innings.
"He got ahead of us in the count and we were guessing," McNamara coach Kurt Quick said. "And he's overpowering. He's every bit worth that commit to Purdue."
MJ Stavola hit 2 of Aurora Christian's 10 singles and knocked in 3 runs. His fourth-inning sacrifice fly scored Noe Marrero to make it 4-0. Sam Tickel singled two pitches later to make it 5-0, giving Zorger room to maneuver his pitching staff.