Baseball: Heartbreak for St. Charles North in 4A title game
The St. Charles North baseball team traversed the emotional spectrum of sport in a 30-minute span in Joliet Saturday.
The excitement level of the players and fans approached critical mass when the North Stars scored a run to tie Edwardsville in the bottom of the seventh inning of the Class 4A state championship game.
Happiness turned to heartbreak in the eighth when the Tigers capitalized on two St. Charles North defensive lapses to score the go-ahead run before Edwardsville reliever Collin Salter retired the North Stars in order to seal a 3-2 victory.
The emotion all came out after the players from St. Charles North (29-11) received their state medallions and the runner-up trophy. While appreciative of all they accomplished with six state tournament wins over the previous three weeks, coming within arm's reach of a state title and falling just short was difficult to accept.
Junior reliever Johnny Lambert tried to put things in perspective.
"There's a lot of sadness but we're really proud," said Lambert, who did not allow a run or hit in 2⅔ scoreless relief innings. "Our chemistry is amazing and it's so hard to say goodbye to. I mean, it would be easier if we were hoisting up the first-place trophy, but I'm just so proud of us at this point."
North trailed 2-1 entering the bottom of the seventh but was able to extend the game to extra innings. Leadoff man Alex Najera drew a walk from starting pitcher Matthew Boyer and Kyler Brown singled to left field.
Edwardsville's 47-year-old coach, Tim Funkhouser, who won his 700th career game, pulled Boyer and inserted Salter. He promptly beaned Michael Gattuso in the helmet to load the bases with no outs.
Things could not have looked more positive for the North Stars with Egon Hein, their top hitter, stepping to the plate. He laced a one-hopper up the middle, but shortstop Josh Ohl fielded the ball, stepped on second and threw to first for a double play as Najera scored the tying run.
Salter then struck out Pat Bellock with the winning run on third base to extend the game.
North did not make plays defensively in the eighth inning. Pinch hitter Jacob Kitchen sent a high, catchable popup to shallow right field but it dropped between three converging players.
"It's hard to believe that happened," St. Charles North coach Todd Genke said. "It's really loud in the stadium so I don't know if they had trouble hearing each other or what. It's a play that has to be made."
Edwardsville (37-5) pinch runner Aaron Young stole second with two outs before No. 2 hitter Blake Burris tapped the ball toward third base. Freshman Jayden Lobliner fielded it and threw to first but the throw hit Burris in the back and rolled away. Young rounded third, charged for the plate, slid head first and beat the catcher's tag by an eyelash, according to the umpire.
Genke appealed to the plate umpire to no avail.
"I still think we got the guy out at home," Genke said. "It was bang bang, but it didn't go our way."
Salter retired North 1-2-3 in the eighth and sealed Edwardsville's third state title. The Tigers won Class AA titles in 1990 and 1998.
The loss was particularly tough to take for Hein, Brown, Ryan Thiesse and Nick DeMarco, all of whom also started and lost a state title game in football last fall. Hein said he appreciated the experience if not the outcome.
"I never would have thought this would have happened for either sport, honestly. But it was an awesome feeling to come (downstate) twice. Not a lot of people can say they did that. I'll be bragging about that the rest of my life."
The runner-up trophy is St. Charles North's second. The North Stars finished third in 2016.
"It's going to hurt for awhile, but we'll pick ourselves back up," Genke said. "At the end of the day, when I put my head down on the pillow, we were runner-up in the state. That's a pretty sweet thing to be able to say."