CRYSTAL LAKE – The Lake in the Hills Thunder baseball team knows it will be looked at as the underdogs throughout this year’s McHenry County Youth Sports Association Summer International Championships, and that’s just fine.
The team largely consists of 14-year-olds playing in the 15-and-under division, so the team finds itself a little younger than opposing teams, which adds to the difficulty of playing in the tough tournament.
The amount of talent in this year’s MCYSA event is enormous, and the Thunder found that out quickly in their first game of pool play. They lost to Mickeys Sleds and More – a team from Midland, Mich. – 12-4. But the Thunder bounced back in the second game against the Bartlett Silver Hawks.
“Our main goal is to get into the Gold Bracket,” Thunder coach Mark Lonigro said. “You can’t start 0-2 and expect to win three in a row. So this was big.”
To reach the Gold Bracket, teams need to secure three wins during the five-game pool play, so the pressure was on the younger Thunder team to get a victory against the taller and bigger Silver Hawks before Lake In The Hills face two international teams in Lithuania and Puerto Rico on Sunday.
Down to their last strike in the top half of the seventh inning and trailing by one, Matt Schneider roped a hard single to center field on the seventh pitch of his at-bat to score two runners and take their first lead of the game. The Thunder held on for a 6-5 victory and moved to 1-1 in the tournament.
“It was huge for us,” Schneider said. “Coming in we had a goal to make it to the Gold Bracket, and for us to go out and get a win like that was good for us. We know we’re going to be the younger team out there each time we play, so it was big.”
Pitcher Joe Rizzo, who recorded the final out of the game with the tying and winning runs on base along with adding an insurance RBI in the seventh, echoed his teammate’s statement.
“Teams look at us and we look smaller than them, so we try to use that to our advantage,” Rizzo said. “We know we have some really tough games coming up, but I feel like we play with nothing to lose.
“If we win, it’s a bonus. If we lose, then that’s what other teams expect of us. We use that as motivation.”
The team stood against the fence in the dugout during the top half of the seventh, watching the rally as some players wore their hats inside-out while others didn’t take off their helmets, fully expecting to hit in the inning again.
The win was important for the Thunder’s confidence as they face Lithuania at 11 a.m. Sunday before playing their feature game against the Puerto Rico All-Stars at 8 p.m.
“When these guys were 12, we told them if they’re still around they will have a chance to play on the MCYSA 15-U team for the Thunder,” Lonigro said. “It’s a big step.
“You think you’re close, but there are some big teams here and it’s a constant battle trying to get players to believe in themselves. and that was the best example we could have possibly have asked for and now they know it can be done.”
When Lonigro spoke to his players after the game, he set their sights on the Lithuania game by saying with a laugh, “Relax, enjoy this for a bit, but don’t eat any Puerto Rican food tonight. Have Lithuanian food for dinner.”