Lucas Smith could not identify a specific game as a turning point in Nazareth’s season, but it isn’t hard to pinpoint its genesis.
During the teeth of a rugged East Suburban Catholic Conference slate, the Roadrunners dropped five games over a two-week period. It culminated in an extra-inning loss to Marian Catholic May 3.
Looking back, Smith shrugs it off. That’s baseball.
“There was about a week where we were just struggling. All teams have bad stretches of baseball,” said Smith, Nazareth’s junior outfielder and a UIC recruit. “After we got past that we turned the corner and never looked back.”
The Roadrunners sure have not. They ride a 15-game winning streak since that Marian loss into Friday’s noon Class 3A state semifinal with Crystal Lake South at Duly Health & Care Field in downtown Joliet.
It will be Nazareth’s fifth state tournament appearance since 2011, first since 2018 as the program seeks its first state title.
Veteran Nazareth coach Lee Milano, in his 22nd season, chalked up the rough patch in the season as the unforgiving nature of the league they play in. Crystal Lake South can relate. Like Nazareth (32-7), the Gators (19-13) finished sixth in their league, the Fox Valley Conference, neither team above .500 in conference play.
Milano, though, told his young team that started five sophomores and a freshman in the supersectional to keep the faith, and things clearly smoothed out.
“Teams are going to hit a lull,” Milano said. “I explained that to the younger guys, not to panic, that this was part of the process. After that extra-inning Marian loss there was a moment that our guys took a step back, needed to regroup. We did, and we kind of took off. We have played a lot of good teams and played good baseball.”
Along the way Milano made a couple slight tweaks to the lineup. He moved up Smith, batting a team-high .466 with 17 doubles and 40 runs scored, to lead off. Milano put Indiana-bound sophomore shortstop Cooper Malamazian, batting .400 with 10 doubles, 33 runs scored and 32 RBIs, to second and moved up fellow sophomore Nick Drtina, batting .371 with six doubles and 31 RBIs, to cleanup.
Milano said sophomore David Cox has stepped up over the last six weeks and freshman Jaden Fauske had three hits in the sectional final.
“Just trying to get a feel for what worked,” Milano said.
Drtina, who tied a 25-year-old program record with 11 wins on the mound, and Malamazian were two of Nazareth’s sophomores who got their feet wet playing varsity baseball last season as freshmen.
A third, North Carolina recruit John Hughes, has been limited to 13 innings this season with a forearm strain, but threw five shutout innings in Nazareth’s sectional final upset of No. 1 seed St. Laurence. He’s one of Nazareth’s five Division I commits.
“After last season ended we couldn’t help but look forward to this season,” Smith said. “We have a lot of talent.”
Nazareth has outscored its playoff opponents 47-5 with three shutouts. The one outlier came in the sectional semifinal, when the Roadrunners rallied from five runs down to beat Lemont 6-5 on Smith’s walk-off two-run single.
“Oh, that win was massive,” Smith said. “I think during every state run every single team has one of those scares. I feel like we needed that game. It was a wake-up call.”
Crystal Lake South, the 2017 Class 4A state champion, beat Fenwick 8-6 in a back-and-forth supersectional shortened to six innings because of rain. Prior to that, the Gators, seeded sixth in their sectional, upset St. Viator – a team that beat Nazareth 9-1 in April – 5-2 in the sectional final for Crystal Lake South’s second sectional title.
Senior Mark DeCicco, 7-3 on the season with a 2.42 ERA, was the star of that game with five-plus innings of two-run pitching and two hits and three RBIs at the plate.
Gators’ senior pitcher Ysen Useni, 5-3 on the year with a 2.15 ERA and 92 strikeouts over 52 innings, is committed to UIC.
“The best team we faced all year was Viator, and they beat Viator,” Milano said. “They’re a really good team and they know how to win a state championship.”
Useni started Monday’s supersectional game, as did Nazareth’s Finn O’Meara (5-0, 1.75 ERA), likely lining both up as potential starters in a Saturday game. Washington will play Chatham Glenwood in Friday’s first semifinal.
Milano said O’Meara is his only pitcher not available for Friday’s game, and he’ll likely hold off on using Hughes, but all other options are on the table.
Whatever it takes to bring home Nazareth’s first state title.
“We have to stay in the moment, play our brand of baseball,” Smith said. “Playing at the state tournament is a big deal. It’s an honor. We have to do what we can to bring a state title back to Nazareth.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle