It appears Marquette Academy coach Todd Hopkins and Aurora Christian coach Andy Zorger are looking for the same thing, and it’s actually something other than but related to that spot in Saturday’s IHSA Class 1A baseball state championship game.
The two teams are so similar in so many aspects that devising a way to beat yourself is also devising a way to beat the other.
Each coach feels that his team is sound fundamentally in all phases of the game, possessor of a good offense, enough pitching to get the job done and a never-say-die spirit that keeps them in every contest, which should make for a very interesting battle when the Crusaders (30-2) and the Eagles (31-2) meet in the semifinals at Peoria’s Dozer Park at 10 a.m. on Friday.
The game was very nearly a rematch of a regular-season contest, but their clash slated for April 14 at Fulton High School’s Muddy River Classic was rained out. As far as common opponents are concerned, each defeated Dixon (MA 18-1 on April 13, AC 10-3 on April 13) and Serena (MA 7-0 on May 19, AC 7-3 on April 23). Both were also to face Somonauk, but while AC won 5-3, Marquette’s meeting was rained out after two innings.
“It would have been nice to have been able to play them when we had that chance,” said Hopkins, whose program will be making its second state finals appearance, having finished fourth in 1999. “They’re loaded. They’re one of the teams at the beginning of the year that everyone was talking about. … We’ve played them in the past. They hit the ball like Okaw Valley or better, they run well, they’re great athletes, and their pitching is deep.
“With all due respect, we’re not going to change what we’re doing. We’ve been basically grinding things out all year, getting better, and we still need to get better yet and I believe we can, and on Friday we’ll play our best game of the year.”
The Crusaders will miss AC’s ace, sophomore Jake Kuntzendorf, who fanned 13 in the 2-1, nine-inning win at the Illinois Benedictine Supersectional. For the season, he is 9-0 with an ERA of 1.85 and 98 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings pitched.
Instead, Marquette will see a combination of its next two starters, junior Hunter Thompson (6-2, 2.79 ERA, 37 Ks in 37 2/3 IP) and senior Eric Hernandez (3-0, 3.09 ERA, 32 K in 22 2/3 IP).
A key for them will be not letting the Cru string things together, as they did in a seven-run second inning in the thrilling 10-9 win over Okaw Valley in the Illinois Wesleyan Super. The top four — junior Nate Melvin (.411, 48 runs), freshman Luke Couch (.385, 37 runs), junior Logan Komater (.475, 38 runs, 39 RBIs) and Saturday’s hero, Bryce Foster (.371, 27 runs, 48 RBIs) — do the most damage.
Aurora Christian will be going against MA’s No. 1 starter, Foster, who on the bump is 6-0 with an 0.31 ERA, 71 strikeouts in 45 innings and only 16 hits and two earned runs allowed all season.
He’ll try to contain an offense that Zorger believes is his team’s strength, with nine players with over 20 RBIs this season led by junior Sam Tickel’s 51 on a .544 average. M.J. Stravola (.476, 37 RBI) and Kuntzendorf (.458, 34 RBIs) are not far behind. Clark Turek (.398, 26 RBI) had the game-winning hit in the ninth in the super.
‘It looks like we both had some drama on Monday,” said Zorger. “I don’t know a ton about Marquette, but we seem to be really similar. Their record is similar to ours, and it looks like they can put up some runs, too. It should be a fun battle.
‘This has been a fun couple of weeks … and this is a really good group to work with and they have a lot of fun together, which is what this is all about. I’m very pleased with the way our guys have come together as a group and found a way to overcome some adversity in games we were down fighting their way back, having some opportunities slip by but still finding a way to get it done.”