ROCHELLE – After the high fly ball came down into Sycamore shortstop Michael Swanberg's glove for the final out of Saturday's Class 3A Rochelle Sectional final, Spartans pitcher Cole Nelson gave pumped his fist.
Seconds later, he was part of a dog pile on the field as the Sycamore baseball team celebrated its first sectional title in school history with a 7-2 win over Rockford Boylan.
"We've worked really hard this year, and in previous years, and we've always been so close," Nelson said after the game. 'We lost the sectional championship (to Wheaton St. Francis) by one run last year, and this year, it's just really nice to finally make that jump from just being regional champions to being sectional champions."
The Spartans (26-12) will play Metamora at 6 p.m. in Monday's Augustana College Super-Sectional in Rock Island. The Redbirds defeated Peoria Notre Dame, 8-4, in the LaSalle-Peru Sectional final.
"With all the work that we put in over the offseason this year, it just feels so amazing to actually get rewarded for that," Sycamore first baseman Cooper Vinz said. "Last year was a tough loss. This year we just found a way to make our own luck and win, and with all the work that we've put in, we've worked towards something. We finally accomplished it."
Since Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh took over the program in 1998, the Spartans have had many close calls in the sectionals. Sycamore won regionals in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2013.
In Cavanaugh's first sectional appearance in 2003, Sycamore suffered a 4-3 loss to Boylan in the Class AA Rockford Guilford Sectional semifinals. Matt Weber, who is now Boylan's coach, earned the save in that game. Weber was drafted by the Chicago Cubs that season and spent time in their minor league system.
"We had a one-run lead going to the seventh, they got two. They brought him into close," Cavanaugh said. "It's nice, (this year) it kind of came full circle with that."
Sycamore got on the board in top of the first inning Saturday, when Cooper Vinz singled in Mark Skelley. Vinz would single in Skelley again in the fifth, and the Spartans added another run in the sixth on Alec Kozak's solo homer. Sycamore took a 7-0 lead in the seventh on a two-run homer from Nate Haacker and RBIs from Kozak and Austin Jacox. Haacker's blast was his 10th of the season, which ties Sycamore's school record.
"We're all focused on competitive at-bats, quality at-bats," Vinz said. "It seems like whenever we do that, that's when we pull together and we string together a few hits, and home runs sometimes. As long as we're giving quality at-bats, we can beat anyone."
After Colan Treml no-hit Kaneland in Wednesday's semifinal, the Spartans got another superb performance on the mound, this time from Nelson, who allowed just six hits and finished with six strikeouts, improving to 5-3 on the year. He shut out the Titans (28-7) for six innings before giving up two runs with the big cushion in the seventh.
Nelson walked the first two Boylan hitters of the game, but made the necessary adjustments with his release point, got out of the first unscathed and allowed just two hits from the second-sixth innings, before fatigue seemed to settle in.
"I was pumped. I was ready. I woke up early this morning, which doesn't happen for me," Nelson said. "I was ready to go. I was so stoked for this game, and I'm really, really glad we won."
Class 3A Augustana College Super-Sectional
Sycamore (26-12) vs. Metamora (25-12)
Where: Augustana College, 639 38th St., Rock Island
When: 6 p.m. today
How they got here: Sycamore beat Genoa-Kingston, 7-0, in the Hampshire Regional semifinals; beat Burlington Central, 6-5, in 10 innings, in regional final.; beat Kaneland, 1-0, in the Rochelle Sectional semifinal; beat Rockford Boylan, 7-2, in the sectional final. Metamora beat East Peoria , 7-0, in the Metamora Regional semifinals; beat Washington, 3-0, in regional final; beat Rock Island Alleman, 10-5, in in the LaSalle-Peru Sectional semifinal; beat Peoria Notre Dame, 8-4, in the sectional final.
Scouting the Redbirds: Metamora was 6-8 in the Mid-Illini conference, yet has ridden a pair of hot pitchers this postseason. Probable starter Geremy Guerrero is a crafty lefty. While Alex Lewis, who beat Alleman in the LaSalle-Peru sectional final, clinched the Redbirds' regional title with a no-hitter in a 3-0 win against Washington. Junior short stop and Kansas State recruit Ethan Skender has hit 11 home runs and anchors the Redbirds batting order.
Outlook: Colan Treml has been the best pitcher in Class 3A this post season. He has three of the Spartans' four wins and gets the start today in Sycamore's first ever appearance in the Elite Eight. For Treml (6-2, 1 S) to send the Spartans to Silver Cross Field in Joliet for their first ever state appearance, the Sycamore offense will need to continue scoring runs. Catcher and No. 3 Nathan Haacker tied the school record with his 10th home run in the Class 3A Rochelle Sectional final. Cleanup hitter and first baseman Cooper Vinz were catalysts for Sycamore against Boylan.
Neither team won its conference title, yet peaked late in the year. The Redbirds and Spartans are playing at their best at the right time. The team that scores first will apply pressure on the opposing offense. Treml has yet to be solved this post season, the Spartans need to find a way to manufacture a run for their ace.
– James Nokes, firstname.lastname@example.org