Baseball: St. Charles North, Hampshire believe they have shot at state title
St. Charles North is the area baseball power that has been knocking on the state title door for years.
Hampshire is the surprise state qualifier no one predicted would reach this weekend's Class 4A Final Four in Joliet.
Their back stories vary widely, yet they have much in common:
Both sit two wins from the title and are playing their best baseball.
Both believe they can win it all.
Both want the first-place trophy.
"We're not just going there to look around," said St. Charles North coach Todd Genke, who guided the North Stars to third place in 2016. "We're there to win the state championship and we're not afraid to talk about it. We're going to roll out our players and they'll be prepared. We'll take our chances and see what happens."
Hampshire coach Frank Simoncelli has embraced the galvanizing effect of the us-against-the-world underdog role. The Whip-Purs have used it to their advantage for a couple of weeks and that is not about to change.
"We've been quoting Rocky and Creed," the second-year coach said. "Right now we feel like we're Rocky and everyone is Drago. We've got a great chance. We're going to go up against whoever comes our way. We're feeling good, we're playing with a lot of confidence and we're playing with a lot of heart. The kids are believing."
St. Charles North (28-10) takes on St. Rita (34-6) in the first semifinal at 3 p.m.
The North Stars boast a .315 team batting average, led by Egon Hein. The senior second baseman is batting .429 (42-for-98) with 14 doubles, 3 home runs and 29 RBI.
Sophomore shortstop Nick DeMarco (Notre Dame) bats .385 with 10 doubles, 5 home runs and 36 RBI. Other top hitters include junior Ryan Thiesse (. 364), senior Michael Gattuso (. 351), sophomore Kevin White (. 333) and senior Patrick Bellock (. 318, 37 RBI).
The pitching staff has been paced by junior reliever Johnny Lambert (6-0, 1.71 ERA). The left-handed sidearmer has appeared in all five playoff games and won three. Sophomore right-hander Zach Kempe is 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA in 45 innings. DeMarco is 6-for-6 in save opportunities.
St. Rita is led by star shortstop Jalen Greer, drafted in the fifth round by the Oakland Athletics Monday. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior bats .364 with 6 doubles, 5 triples and 8 home runs.
Other top hitters for the Mustangs include junior Sean McDevitt (. 411), junior Chris McDevitt (. 365, 28 RBI), junior Luke Napleton (. 365, 4 HR) and senior Gavin Mottl (. 340).
"St. Rita is one of the premier powerhouses in Illinois," Genke said, "but we're trying to figure out some ways we can beat them. Hopefully, we can be in a close game and pull it out in the end."
Hampshire (22-14) faces Edwardsville (35-5) in the second semifinal at 5 p.m.
Matt Jachec is Hampshire's top pitcher and hitter. The senior bats .381 (43-for-113) with 4 home runs and 29 RBI. The Indiana State committed right-hander is 7-3 with 110 strikeouts and a 0.73 ERA in 80 innings. He has walked eight.
Jachec has been even sharper in the postseason despite managing a blister. In 25⅔ innings over 3 starts, he is 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA, 28 strikeouts and 2 walks.
Jachec is ineligible to pitch until Saturday due to IHSA pitch count rules. Simoncelli said senior Logan Nespor gets the semifinal start against Edwardsville, which was defeated 8-3 by Crystal Lake South in the 2017 state championship game. Nespor is 6-2 with a 2.77 ERA. He is 3-0 in the postseason with a 1.24 ERA
The Whip-Purs must contain junior slugger Drake Westcott, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound Louisville recruit with 9 home runs. The left-handed batter homered against CL South in the title game as a freshman.
"It's a deep lineup with good pitching. It's no easy task," Simoncelli said. "But we're playing very good baseball and I see no reason why we'd stop now. We're going to keep playing with our hearts. Hopefully, we're the best team that day."