By Dan McGrath
In the sixth inning, the scoreboard at Joliet Catholic Academy’s Gillespie Field showed the Leo baseball team with one run and five hits.
A third column told the real story of the Lions’ 10-1 loss to JCA in an IHSA Class 2-A Sectional semifinal on Thursday, May 25: seven errors.
Two fielding bobbles, four errant throws and a catcher’s interference call accounted for six unearned runs, gifts the talented and fundamentally skilled Hillmen hardly needed in improving to 22-8 for the season and earning a date with Chicago Christian in Saturday’s sectional title game.
Leo closed the books on a 12-18 season, its highest victory total in 10 years.
“You hate to see it end like this, in a game where we didn’t play our best, but I’m proud of the season we had,” Coach Mike Anderson said. “I want to thank the seniors, who left it all on the field every day. And I want the younger guys to keep working hard, keep improving.
“This is definitely something to build on.”
Starter Matthew Hernandez struggled with his control early and issued two first-inning walks, both of which came around to score. The Lions were inches away from getting out of the inning, but couldn’t quite turn a double play, and the Hillmen’s 2-0 lead grew to 4-0 when Zach Pomatto banged a two-out, two-out double into the left-field corner.
Leo broke through with a run against Michael Tuman in the fourth inning, but ran themselves out of a chance for more. Amar’e Hall stole second after delivering an RBI single that scored Hernandez. He took third on Mitchell Hall’s tap to the mound, but made too wide a turn and was thrown out scrambling back after Tuman threw behind him rather than go for the out at first. The inning ended when Mitchell Hall was cut down trying to steal second.
The Lions’ bats went silent at that point, and a parade of fielding miscues helped the Hillmen tack on two runs in the fourth and four more in the fifth. A disappointing end to a season that featured, in addition to a 10-year high for victories, these highlights:
* Senior Kyrent Cole, who played shortstop and center field and pitched, was named co-Player of the Year in the Catholic League White Division
* Fellow senior Matt Hernandez, who played third base and pitched, joined Cole on the CCL White Division all-conference team
* Leo was honored with the White Division Sportsmanship Award in a vote of conference coaches.
“I think it suggests we competed hard and respected the game, and we can be proud of that,” Anderson said.
Matthew Hernandez could see the game of his life slipping away when his Leo Lions went to the bottom of the seventh inning trailing University High 8-5 in the IHSA Class 2-A regional title decider in Palos Heights on Saturday, May 20.
Hernandez, a senior, held the Maroons to one earned run over five innings of stellar pitching. He doubled and scored in the first inning, delivered a sacrifice fly in the third and gave the Lions a 5-4 lead with a clutch two-out, two-run single in the fifth.
But after Hernandez left the mound, Nathan Kilkus’ two-run double put U-High up 6-5 in the sixth inning, and the Maroons pushed two more runs across in the top of the seventh to lead 8-5. With two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the seventh, the Lions were looking at the end of their season.
But they simply refused to lose. A walk, a Joaquin Huerta single and an RBI single by Hernandez–who else?—got Leo within 8-6. After Kyrent Cole was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Mitchell Hall’s single scored Huerta for 8-7 and left the bases full.
Nate Sims popped up the first pitch he saw, but the U-High shortstop had trouble tracking the ball in the late-afternoon sun. As it glanced off his glove, Hernandez crossed the plate with the tying run. Cole, running with two outs, never stopped and beat a hurried throw home with a headfirst slide to score the winner.
Leo 9, U-High 8. Pretty amazing.
“I know we got some breaks, but what stands out to me is we kept fighting, kept battling and never got down on ourselves when we fell behind,” Coach Mike Anderson said. “When you do that, you give yourself a chance.”
By securing the regional title, the Lions gave themselves a chance to face host Joliet Catholic in a semifinal of the Joliet Catholic Sectional on Thursday, May 25 at 4:30 p.m. The Hilltoppers are 19-8 overall, they finished third in the tough East Suburban Catholic Conference at 8-4 and they claimed their regional title with a 5-3 win over Wilmington.
On paper, they’d be favored. But after Saturday, Leo is of a mind that anything is possible.