By Dan McGrath

The 2023 Catholic League baseball opener featured the most significant victory in recent memory for the Leo Lions.

Leo rallied for four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to edge Brother Rice 9-8 at Chicago State. The Crusaders are the defending Catholic League champions, they’re a perennial state contender, they’re nationally ranked in some polls and, well, no one around Leo was quite sure when the Lions had last beaten them.

“Probably in my era,” said Coach Mike Anderson, a 1991 Leo grad who played three varsity seasons. “I remember us beating them at least once, probably the year we won the South Section.”

The Lions collected 14 hits and got four solid innings from starting pitcher Matthew Hernandez but still trailed 8-5 in the bottom of the seventh. Two walks and RBI singles by Kyrent Cole, Joaquin Huerta and Amare Hall tied the game. With the bases loaded, freshman Derrick Davis III drew another walk to force in the winning run and give Leo its third straight victory.

The euphoria was short-lived as the Lions took a 16-1 pounding at St. Laurence one day later. The hard-hitting Vikings banged out 12 hits, but walks and hit batters were equally responsible for the four-inning mercy rule being applied as Leo’s pitchers struggled to find the strike zone.

Still, the Brother Rice win was one to build on as it affirmed the belief in each other the Lions were building during preseason workouts.

“It’s going to be different this year,” Anderson said. “We’ve got more players in the program, and more pitchers. We’re working hard, and the attitude is let’s have a special year. It’s our time.”

Seniors Hernandez, Cole and Esai Jacinto are four-year varsity players. Nate Sims is in his third year, and Amare Hall is a two-year starter. Huerta and Mitchell Hall look to be impact newcomers. Sophomore Aiden Lott is a promising pitcher, and fellow sophomore Ian Dunn and the freshman Davis look capable of competing at the varsity level.

Nonconference victories over Ogden International Charter (6-2) and Englewood STEM (a 16-0, five-inning no-hitter) preceded the Brother Rice game. Then the weather intervened, forcing four nonconference postponements that will be made up as the schedule allows.

Otherwise the schedule is almost all conference games the rest of the way, and the Catholic League is a meat grinder.

“But this year is going to be different,” Anderson said. “I really believe it.”