Neither state semifinalist finished above .500 in their respective conferences, with the Gators going 8-10 and placing sixth in the always tough Fox Valley Conference and the Roadrunners going 6-6 and taking sixth in the rugged East Suburban Catholic Conference.
Despite those so-so records, each team finds itself in the same enviable spot: two wins from a state title.
“Our conference, like Crystal Lake South’s, is unforgiving,” Roadrunners coach Lee Milano said. “There’s no easy game in our conference, and I do believe that it prepares us for the playoffs. There’s no magic to what we’re doing, we’re just playing good baseball.”
Crystal Lake South (19-13) and Nazareth (32-7) will play in a state semifinal at noon Friday at Joliet’s Duly Health & Care Field, with the winner advancing to the final on Saturday. Washington (34-5) and Glenwood (26-6) will face off in the first semifinal at 10 a.m.
South returns to state for the second time under Brian Bogda, who led the Gators to a 4A championship in 2017. Nazareth is back at state for the fifth time since 2011 and the first time since 2018. The Roadrunners have never won a state title.
Bogda, too, thinks a tough schedule prepared his players for the challenges and unpredictability of the playoffs. South’s supersectional victory was called after six innings because of rain and thunderstorms.
“We played a lot of close games all year long,” Bogda said. “We played [FVC champion] Huntley late [in the season], lost 1-0 and 5-3. Playing them last, I kind of prefer because we saw their real good pitchers in real good games and we competed. We learned from that. We played Barrington late and lost 1-0.
“Seeing all that pitching, being in those situations, learning from it and being battle-tested helped us out.”
The next challenge for the Gators will be a Nazareth team that enters the state tournament on a 15-game winning streak. The Roadrunners’ only loss out of conference was to Homewood-Flossmoor, 7-6, in April.
Four of its last seven wins have been shutouts, with Luke Brabham, Joey Bennett, Nick Drtina, David Cox, Luca Fiore, Finn O’Meara and Sebastian Gutierrez all contributing. John Hughes went five shutout innings in a 6-0 win against St. Laurence to win the St. Laurence Sectional.
Milano sees the youthfulness of his team as a positive, but the Roadrunners’ success isn’t all about the young guys.
“I think we’re pretty well tested and we’ll be ready for what we’ll be up against this weekend,” he said. “We talked to them about taking advantage of the opportunity. There are no guarantees just because we’re young that we’re going to be back. The seniors, too, have really gone through a lot. They went losing a season as sophomores [because of the pandemic], so for those kids, it’s a huge deal.”
“Luke Brabham has been DH’ing for us and doing a great job. Sebastian Gutierrez has done a real nice job on the mound. He’s closed a lot for us.”
Nazareth has plenty of tough outs with Lucas Smith (.466, 17 doubles, three homers, 40 runs) and Cooper Malamazian (.400, 32 RBIs) both hitting .400 or better. Jaden Fauske (.385), Drtina (.371), Brabham (.369) and Jacob Castaneda (.350) aren’t far behind.
Gators senior Mark DeCicco (7-3, 2.42 ERA) likely will start Friday against Nazareth, with Ysen Useni (5-3, 2.15 ERA), going Saturday.
South is led offensively by Ryan Skwarek (.430, 33 RBIs), Kyle Kuffel (.345), Mason Struck (.338), Dayton Murphy (.324, 10 doubles, 34 runs) and Joey McEnery (.298, 29 runs).
Bogda has been impressed by his team’s defense, which could play a big role in determining if the South plays for first or third on Saturday.
“We’re fielding at a .940 clip, that’s pretty good for high school,” Bogda said. “Dayton Murphy is a big part of that at shortstop. He’s only made five errors all year, which is terrific. Kyle Kuffel has improved tremendously behind the plate since a year ago. Outfielders’ Joey Weldon, James Carlson and Joey McEnery have just been solid at tracking balls down, being in the right spot, and hitting cut-off men.”