SYCAMORE – The Kaneland baseball team exploded out of the gates and finished strong in Wednesday’s Class 3A Sycamore Sectional semifinal against Dixon, scoring four runs in the first inning and piling on 10 more over the last four to win 15-7.
Johnny Spallasso grounded a two-run single between short and third to score Alex Panico and Parker Violett on the first two runs in the top of the first, then Collin Miller bounced a two-run double over third to bring in Patrick Collins and Spallasso, stretching the Knights’ lead to 4-0.
“It helped a lot. It helped our pitching, they had a nice lead for us,” Violett said of the first inning. “Our defense is pretty good. We just had more control over the game there.”
The Dukes (24-3) answered with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first when Gage Burdick singled between second and short to score Jake Gaither and Beau Evans. Kaneland’s Cole Pugh led off the top of the second with a solo home run, but Burdick knotted the game 5-5 with a three-run homer in bottom of the third.
“I thought, ‘That’s just a mistake.’ That’s one pitch, one mistake,” Kaneland coach Brian Aversa said about his reaction to the game-tying home run. “Game’s nowhere close to being over. We’ve got a lot of game left. And we responded to that in the next inning. That’s what we were looking for. Some our leaders spoke to the team and said, ‘This isn’t going to happen. Let’s get together right now. Let’s go change this. It’s our turn.’ And they came in, and they just started smacking the heck out of the ball.”
In the top of the fourth, the Knights’ capitalized on a few Dixon mistakes to regain the lead at 9-5. A wild pitch during Collins’ at-bat scored Panico, a Spallasso fielder’s choice drove in Dylan Conklin, a balk scored Collins, and another wild pitch brought in Spallasso.
In the top of the fifth, Kaneland added two more runs. Violett singled to left to plate Pugh first, then a Collins sacrifice fly scored Panico.
“Keep hitting the ball, keeping scoring more runs,” Violett said of Kaneland’s mentality after gaining the early lead. “It doesn’t matter how you get on base, a hit by pitch or walk, you just gotta keep getting on base.”
After Kaneland had regained the lead, Gaither crushed a two-run homer to left field in the bottom of the sixth, cutting the deficit to 11-7, but the Knights answered with another four-run inning, shutting the door on a comeback for good.
Conklin started the seventh-inning rally with an RBI double, scoring Panico, then Violett blasted a two-run home run to left. Anthony Campise smacked an RBI single to bring in Spallasso for the final run.
“The biggest difference was, we walked a little too many guys and they limited those and just kept putting the ball in the zone,” Burdick said. “And we just failed to get the bats alive.”
Violett went 3 for 4 with three RBIs to lead Kaneland at the plate. Pugh went 2 for 4.
Jackson Kottmeyer threw four innings of relief for the win, allowing two runs on three hits, and striking out six with one walk.
“We knew it was going to be a kind of who was going to hit better today because both of our 1s and 2s [pitchers] are burned, and we knew that coming in. We even talked about it at the coaches meeting. We just know where we’re at, and we had to get a fast start,” Aversa said. “Great to see, especially with Jake [Bianco] on the mound. And Jake’s gonna throw to contact a lot, and he did the job that we needed him to through three innings, and we brought Jackson [Kottmeyer] in, and the team was just ready. We kept responding and answering back, and adding and adding and adding. I was really proud of the way our guys played today.”
Burdick went 2 for 3 with a three-run homer and five RBIs, while Gaither added a two-run home run for Dixon.
“This is definitely the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” Burdick said. “It was a great season and I wouldn’t ask for anything more. I love every part of this team.”
The loss doesn’t take away from the season the Dukes had, winning Big Northern Conference and 3A regional titles for the third straight season.
“The biggest difference is, we come into a game and we know we’re running low on arms. We had a huge injury come up just yesterday, and it really changed a lot of what we were planning on doing,” Dixon coach Jason Burgess said. “So defensively and offensively, it kind of changed us a little bit. We ran into a team that hit the ball well. We had some timely hitting at times, but had some mistakes. We knew this was going to be one of those games where you’re going to have to battle through and score runs. And with both teams probably being down on arms, they just battled through a lot more than us.
“Overall, we had a great season. The boys really came together. They learned a ton. They meshed very well. I couldn’t have been more proud of how they really developed as a group.”