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INSIDE THE GAME: A stepping stone to greater things?

State championships are not exactly rare.

Heck, just pick a sport and there’s a new “best team in Illinois” just about every year, if not every few months.

But to have a member of another state championship team, from another sport, of another gender, with a locker next to yours or sitting in the row next to you in class, that’s something special.

And that’s what’s been going on at Marquette Academy Junior High the last few weeks.

State baseball and softball champions from the same school in the same early fall season? That’s practically unheard of ... for almost everyone other than Marquette. Knights girls volleyball and boys basketball both won titles in the late fall and winter, respectively, in 2011, but having both do it in the fall on consecutive weekends, it’s even more remarkable.

And while the boys did it in record-setting fashion, the girls showed that they would simply not be beaten.

The Knights, who went 18-1 and defeated Normal Metcalf 10-1 for the 1A eighth-grade title for head coach Brad Waldron and assistants Brian Bressner, Mike Graham and Matt Nelson, were Gabe Almeda, Tom Durdan, Caden Eller, Alex Graham, Andrew Hamm, Daniel Hoffman, Henry McGrath, Peter McGrath, Charlie Mullen, Logan Nelson, Primo Pattelli, Aiden Thompson, Taylor Waldron and Carson Zellers.

At the state finals, the Knights baseball team set records for fewest runs allowed (0), most strikeouts in a game (17) and most strikeouts in a tournament (37). Individually, those 17 strikeouts in a game were all by Aiden Thompson, but the Knights’ Logan Nelson broke or tied a passel of other marks: most hits in a game (4, tied) and most home runs in a game (2, tied), while he set championship game marks for most hits (4), most total bases (7, tied), most runs scored (3, tied) and most home runs (1, tied).

By hailing the big moments for the boys, it by no means belittles the accomplishment of the Lady Knights, who were terrific in their own right.

The ladies used a four-run fifth inning to best Casey-Westfield 6-3 to cap their 21-1 title season under head coach Brad Oakes, assistants Steve Hortega, Curt Johnson and Brian McCallum. They were Ella Biggins, Sarah Duchon, Sophia Flavin, Katie Hardin, Gabby Hortega, Lyndsey Kaufmann, Kaylee Killelea, Lauren Machatta, Eva McCallum, Darby Morganflash, Emma Rinearson, Nora Rinearson and Abbey Thumm,

As my friend and co-worker Brian Hoxsey is right to point out, winning an IESA state title is a great accomplishment for these hard-working young men and women, but it shouldn't be the pinnacle of their athletic careers, nor should they let it be. If they keep working as hard as they have, there are bigger things ahead for every single one of those athletes, athletically, academically and, ultimately, professionally.

Does it foreshadow a state championship for Marquette’s high school baseball coach Todd Hopkins, like the one that barely eluded his Class 1A fourth-place Crusaders last spring? No, it doesn’t.

Does it mean that MA softball coach Dave Tkach is a lock to get that IHSA state appearance that’s narrowly slipped through his club’s fingers several times in the last few seasons? No, it doesn’t.

The reason for that is that only about half of the junior highs in Illinois participate in IESA sports. Some are part of the Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association, while most Chicago-area and suburban public and private schools don't participate in any organization at all.

That means there are a lot of terrific athletes out there who may be working just as hard as Marquette’s to make their high school just as likely as Marquette to take an IHSA crown on the diamond in the next five years.

But one thing I do know, the way the Knights and Lady Knights made the most of their talent in the pressure and bright lights of a winner-take-all stage with so much on the line, that and the work ethic it took to get them there are things that every single one of those schools anywhere in Illinois would give anything to have going for its programs.

And that’s a head start the Crusaders, the Lady Crusaders and their coaches will no doubt make the most of when the time comes.

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