By Dan McGrath
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.