GRAYSLAKE – When Crystal Lake South scored a pair of runs in the top of the fourth inning against Grayslake Central during Saturday's Class 3A Grayslake Central Sectional title game, it felt as if the Gators had moved a mountain.
That's because the No. 2-seeded Rams hadn't allowed a run in the playoffs until that point in 24-plus consecutive innings.
South second baseman Nick DiBenedetto led off the fourth with a double down the left-field line, and the next batter, Jacob Bimbi, doubled down the right-field line against Rams starting pitcher Ethan Peterson, scoring DiBenedetto.
The Gators, a No. 4 seed, scored again three batters later, when catcher Kyle Green drove Bimbi home with an RBI single on a 3-2 count with two outs, giving South a two-run cushion.
It wasn't enough. The Rams stormed back, scoring twice in the bottom of the fifth on RBI singles from Marcus Maristela and Antionio Crews. Then they scored the winning run on a two-out wild pitch in the sixth, and Grayslake Central escaped with a 3-2 win for the sectional championship.
The Gators (24-11), who started the season with an 8-8 record, won 16 of their next 18 games before Saturday's loss. Consequently, the postgame speech from South coach Brian Bogda to his players wasn't easy.
"I told our kids I was proud of them," Bogda said. "Midway through the season, we were a .500 team. To go from that point to a sectional final ... most people wrote us off. Our guys should feel pretty proud of what they accomplished."
Before facing the Rams (28-7), the Gators had outscored the three teams they'd faced in the postseason (Johnsburg, Vernon Hills and Prairie Ridge) by a combined 22-1 score.
"I honestly thought we'd need five or six runs to win this game," Rams coach Troy Whalen said. "That's not to take anything away from my pitching staff. That's just a credit to how hot South was coming into this game."
Remarkably, Grayslake Central never has lost a regional or sectional championship game on its own field during Whalen's 16 seasons coaching the team. They're 7-0 at home in regional title games and 4-0 in sectional finals.
South sophomore starting pitcher Dominic Guzman was tantalizingly close to ending that streak. He kept the Rams' bats ice cold early. Guzman gave up a pair of first-inning singles, a walk in the third inning and another in the fourth. Those were the only baserunners he allowed until encountering trouble in the fifth, when he was replaced by Beiker Fuentes.
Guzman wound up with a no-decision, and Fuentes took the loss after his wild pitch with two outs in the sixth.
"I just tried to attack the strike zone and throw first-pitch strikes," Guzman said. "That was my focus. I was pretty successful doing that until it got away from me a little bit later in the game."
The Gators are losing nine seniors to graduation. But five players in their starting lineup Saturday were juniors.
"Being a part of this program changed the way I look at baseball," South senior Kyle Hetherington said. "It made me think about the little things, rather than what I can do personally. I became more focused on the team aspect."
Bimbi further discussed that camaraderie, which seemed to develop during the final weeks of the season.
"That's one thing that's going to sting the most: knowing I'm never going to get to play on the same field again as this amazing group of seniors," Bimbi said. "They set a tremendous example. We all just got sick of losing and worked day after day in practice to get better. We all developed an incredible bond."
The Rams will face Montini on Monday in the North Central College Supersectional in Naperville. The winner advances to the Class 3A state semifinals in Joliet.
STAR OF THE GAME
Dominic Guzman, Crystal Lake South, so., P
Guzman didn't allow a run until the fifth inning, scattered four hits, and didn't allow an extra-base hit.
20: Positive run differential by South during the playoffs, despite Saturday's loss. The Gators outscored their postseason opponents by a combined 24-4 margin.
AND ANOTHER THING ...
"We were 16-3 in our last 19 games," Gators coach Brian Bogda said. "We could've chose to just stick our heads in the sand. Instead, we learned from our experiences and grew from them."
Grayslake Central 3, Crystal Lake South 2
Crystal Lake South 000 200 0 – 2 7 1
Grayslake Central 000 021 X – 3 6 0
WP: Sturm (3IP, 1H, 0R, 0ER, 1BB, 1K). LP: Fuentes (1 IP, 2H, 1R, 1ER, 1BB, 2K).
Top hitters–Crystal Lake South: Bimbi 1-3 (Double, R, RBI), Green 1-3 (RBI), DiBenedetto 1-3 (R), Hetherington 1-3 (Double), Peltz 1-1 (Double, 2 BB), Fischer 1-4, Gorken 1-3. Grayslake Central: Maristela 2-2 (BB, RBI), Crews 1-3 (RBI), Presutti 1-4 (Double), Rogers 1-3 (BB, R), Guckenberger 1-3 (R), Twardock 0-2 (BB, R).