COAL CITY – While his team was packing up its equipment Friday after a rain-delayed, 16-5 win over Coal City in the Class 2A sectional championship game, Marquette baseball coach Todd Hopkins proclaimed loudly, “Not bad for a five seed!”
With the win, the Crusaders, whose Class 1A title in 2019 bumped them into Class 2A this year, have advanced to the final eight and will play Normal U-High at 6 p.m. Monday in the Illinois Wesleyan Supersectional. All of Marquette’s wins this postseason have come against teams seeded higher than the Crusaders.
“On paper, this is a bit of a surprise,” Hopkins said. “We beat the top seed in our regional, Spring Valley Hall, and then beat the No. 2 seed, Chicago Christian, which had just beaten Joliet Catholic. Then we beat Coal City, who had beaten Manteno.
“The kids had a big chip on their shoulders when the seeds came out. We win a state title in Class 1A and then didn’t get much respect in the seeding in 2A.”
The Crusaders (17-3) wasted no time in earning the respect of the Coalers.
Marquette took advantage of three Coal City errors in the top of the first inning and got a two-run single by Beau Ewers and RBIs from Shane Reynolds, Hayden McKenna and Nick Melvin in taking an 8-0 lead. Marquette leadoff hitter Melvin was 1 for 1 with a walk, an RBI and two runs scored in the inning and finished 4 for 4 with two triples, four runs scored and two RBIs.
“We wanted to pounce on them early,” Melvin said. “We came out and hit the ball hard and put a hurt on them.
“Everyone thought we were down this year, but we want to show you can’t count us out.”
The eight-run lead was more than enough for sophomore pitcher Aidan Thompson, who allowed only three hits and struck out three in three innings before being relieved before reaching a pitch count that would make him ineligible to pitch Monday.
“Aidan threw great,” Hopkins said. “We had to take him out there because we want to be able to use him Monday if we need to. He understood that.
“We know we gotta draw first blood. That’s what got us here. We put the ball in play, put pressure on their defense and came through with some big hits.”
Marquette made it 10-0 on a two-run double in the top of the third by Luke Couch, driving in Melvin, who had tripled, and Logan Nelson, who walked.
After a rain delay of nearly an hour, play resumed and Marquette tacked on five more runs in the top of the fourth.
Coal City (13-10) rallied for four runs in the bottom of the fourth on a long two-run single by Abram Wills, scoring Trent Sandeno and Nolan Berger, and a two-run double by Riley Ponio, scoring courtesy runner Nolan Ness and Alec Lovell.
Marquette capped the scoring in the fifth with an RBI triple by Melvin.
“Coming from 1A and winning a sectional title in 2A, I can’t be more proud of these kids,” Hopkins said. “They have a lot of fight, and this is a huge win for the program.
“We know what kind of program Coal City has, and this was new territory for us. We are a school of 160 kids.”
For Coal City, it was the end of a journey that was longer than most expected.
“Just the fact we were here is great,” Coal City coach Greg Wills said. “No one gave these kids much of a chance, especially after not playing any games last year. But, we got better as the year went on. The payoff is that these guys got to have this kind of experience.
“We just gave them too many outs in the first inning. We got beat the same way we have been beating people the last two weeks: putting the ball in play, having tough at-bats, making the defensive plays. Just winning baseball. Give them credit. They beat us today, and they played winning baseball.”