BASEBALL: Bishop McNamara wins first sectional since 1994
SENECA — Coming into this season, there were no current members of Bishop McNamara’s baseball team that had been alive since the Irish had been able to call themselves sectional champions.
But that changed Saturday, as the Irish offense continued their season-long offensive surge, capped by a Broghan O’Connor grand slam in the sixth inning to topple Herscher 11-4 in the IHSA Class 2A Seneca Sectional championship.
The win gave the Irish their fourth sectional title in school history and their first since 1994.
According to Saturday’s starting pitcher Tyler Hiller, the biggest reason the Irish snapped their drought was also one of the biggest reasons the Irish won their 1989 sectional title, current coach and former player Kurt Quick. Quick returned to McNamara this season for his second stint at McNamara, coming over from the same Tigers squad the Irish defeated Saturday.
“Bishop McNamara hasn’t been in a super-sectional since 1994 and it’s big thanks to coach (Quick),” Hiller said. “He came back to Bishop McNamara because he wanted to bring a Final Four or state championship back and we’re on our way to doing it.”
In his first start since throwing a no-hitter against Peotone in the Irish’s regional semifinal, Hiller’s no-no aspirations were dashed early Saturday, as Ben Koranda put the Tigers on the board early with a solo homerun.
While Tigers coach Eric Regez was ecstatic to nab an early lead, he said he knew his feisty Tigers squad would need to continue to put up runs to go blow-for-blow with an Irish offense that has now scored double-digit runs 12 times this season.
“I just know that their offense is super powerful, so one run was just one run,” Regez said. “We’d have to pitch and defend, because there are no weaknesses in their order.”
It didn’t take long for Regez’s hypothesis to become theory, as the Irish came back in their half of the first and immediately pounded out four runs before adding another pair in the second.
And as for Hiller, he settled in nicely. Outside of a third inning that saw the Tigers plate a pair after an Elliot Engelman leadoff walk and Koranda hit by pitch turned into runs on a Tanner Mullin single and Justin Walthers sacrifice fly, the junior hurler allowed just one hit and three walks the rest of the afternoon.
“We talked about Ben Koranda, we made a mistake and we paid for it,” Quick said. “Tyler’s a competitor, he’s a quarterback, so he’s not going to get frustrated … he did a great job today.”
Hiller said that his competitiveness worked to his disadvantage early, but once he reeled it in, he was able to find success on the mound.
“I want to strike every out that comes up to the plate, I want to compete with every batter,” Hiller said. “But I’ve got to realize that I’ve got a defense behind me too and I’ve got great fielders that can do it.”
But even with the attitude adjustment to pitch to more contact, Hiller was still able to fan a dozen Tigers in 6 1/3 innings. He credited a variety of pitches for keeping the Tigers guessing in the batter’s box.
“I think in the early innings, the fastball was running high and (Herscher) knew it, so I wanted to come in with the 12-6 curveball so they could see the high coming and then let it just drop,” Hiller said. “That was working earlier and then I changed to my slider and got them to swing away.”
Hiller wasn’t the only pitcher to settle in. Koranda threw gooseggs up in the third, fourth and fifth innings, allowing three hits and two walks over those middle innings.
“I thought he got their good hitters out at times and that was key,” Regez said. “We let them off the hook a couple of times, but got out of a couple of jams there, so he threw the ball well.”
But that changed in a major way in the sixth inning. After Owen Jackson blooped a based-loaded single to score Dom Koziol, Koranda’s day on the hill ended in favor of Grant Wenzelman.
O’Connor was the first Irish batter to face Wenzelman and he immediately broke the game open with a grand slam over the left-center field fence to turn what was a two-run game for most of the day into a lopsided Irish lead.
“It felt great, I knew it was gone as soon as I touched it,” O’Connor said. “It came at a great time — we had gone kind of flat for a bit and that sparked us back up.”
Quick couldn’t be happier for his senior leader, who struggled early in the season after missing last year with a torn ACL — his second such injury during high school — but stuck with it and saw the fruits of his labor on Saturday.
“He’s a great baseball player but a better person — I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as he does and it’s paid off,” Quick said. “He was struggling early on in the year, so I moved him down in the lineup and he got frustrated, but I told him he was going to win us some games.”
The Tigers were able to chase Hiller off the mound in the seventh and tacked on a late run, but it wasn’t enough to take the lead away from the Irish.
Even in the loss, Regez had nothing but pride for his team, one that struggled mightily out of the gate thanks to inexperience after losing all nine positional starters from last year’s team to graduation, but finished the year on a high note.
“I’m proud of all of our guys,” Regez said. “I thought we were playing our best baseball of the year at the end of the season and as a coach, that’s definitely something we strive for.”
In the other dugout, O’Connor said that after the Irish returned all but two key members of last year’s team, they had high hopes for this season, hopes that have now turned to reality.
“We lost Sam O’Connor and Zeffrey Duffield, but we had a lot coming back,” O’Connor said. “We had that swagger to us this year and knew we could do this.”
O’Connor totaled a pair of hits and five RBIs. Jackson and Hiller each had two hits, two runs and two RBIs. Max O’Connor went 3-for-3 with two runs and an RBI.
Hiller’s day on the mound ended after 6 1/3 innings. He allowed four runs (three earned) on four hits and four walks before Preston Goodman retired the final two Tiger batters for the save.
Koranda scored a second run after his solo shot in the first. On the mound, his final line read 10 runs (nine earned) on 11 hits and three walks in five-plus innings. Walthers had a hit and a pair of RBIs.
The Irish have a quick turnaround before they head to Benedictine University to take on Aurora Christian, a Metro Suburban Conference opponent that they swept during the regular season, at 2:30 p.m. in the IHSA Class 2A Lisle Super-Sectional.