CHICAGO – Junior pitcher John Hughes returned with his Nazareth Academy baseball teammates to a Class 3A sectional final Saturday in a much better place than last season.
The 2022 sectional final marked his first start that season after battling a forearm injury. Hughes was medically cleared to pitch the day before.
“Torn UCL, hurt. It was bad (last year). But today, I came out firing, feeling really good,” Hughes said. “Everything was working. It was perfect.”
The defending 3A state champions also appear at least as good, if not better.
The Roadrunners rolled to an 11-1 win over St. Laurence in six innings in the Marist Sectional final Saturday.
Hughes threw the first four innings, allowing two hits with five strikeouts, one walk and one hit batter. When David Cox came on in relief, the Roadrunners led 6-0.
Nazareth (31-6) won last year’s sectional final 6-0 at St. Laurence behind Hughes’ five innings, giving up two hits and striking out six.
“Last year, same exact thing, this game with them,” Hughes said. “I was able to do well (in 2022), but today I really gave it to them. I’m just really happy for our guys, really proud.”
The Roadrunners can return to the state tournament by winning Monday’s Crestwood Supersectional at 5 p.m. at Ozinga Field against Lindblom (14-12).
“It never gets old. Every season’s different. Every team’s different. You’ve got to appreciate every single win and I tell these guys that all of the time,” Nazareth coach Lee Milano said. “All year we’ve talked about what our goal is and not what anybody else’s goal is. We talk about what our expectations are and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Timely hitting and defensive plays despite three errors made the margin of victory over the Vikings (30-9) much more than expected.
The Roadrunners struck early against St. Laurence senior ace and Notre Dame commit DJ Helwig, using a five-run second to take a 6-0 lead. Nazareth scored one run in the first but left the bases loaded with one out.
“We knew even if we didn’t score (more), we had his pitch count up, which was our goal,” Milano said. “I never would have guessed that (score). I give credit to our kids. I thought we prepared well and we were patient at the plate. When he came in with his strikes, we hit them.”
Sophomore Jaden Fauske had three doubles and three runs batted in to lead Nazareth’s 12-hit attack. Senior Lucas Smith (3 for 4, 4 RBIs, double) and Cox (2 for 4, 2 RBIs, double) added multiple hits. Junior leadoff hitter Luca Fiore scored three times. Smith and designated hitter Finn O’Meara were the only seniors in the lineup.
“Just with everybody growing up a year, everyone’s maturity, we’re hitting the ball stronger and I think our pitching staff has done really well,” Hughes said. “Maybe in the last 10 games, we’ve had 10-plus hits. We were still really good last year, but we’ve stepped up (offensively).”
Four consecutive doubles by Fauske, Smith (2 RBIs), Nick Drtina and Cox brought in the second-inning runs.
Fiore walked to start Nazareth’s first, went to third on Fauske’s double and scored on Smith’s infield hit.
After being limited to a Fauske walk over the third, fourth and fifth innings by reliever Richard Gomez, the Roadrunners ended the game with a five-run sixth. Fauske had a two-run double and RBI singles came from Cooper Malamazian, Smith and Cox, which ended the game.
“That second inning for us was huge,” Fauske said. “That kind of took all of the energy out of them and we had the momentum on our side.”
After a 1-2-3 first, the Vikings’ first two batters reached in the second, but Hughes picked off the lead runner.
St. Laurence scored in the fifth and had two on with no outs until shortstop Malamazian turned a hard hit up the middle into a double play.
The Vikings also loaded the bases in the sixth with two errors and a walk, but Fauske relieved and got a grounder to Malamazian to end the threat.
“We had some really huge plays on defense,” Milano said. “Cooper made an unbelievable play on that double play.”