It was a gorgeous Thursday afternoon in Bolingbrook as the Raiders squared off against neighboring Neuqua Valley in an IHSA 4A Regional Semifinal game. In an optical scoreboard illusion Neuqua was the home team as the higher seed. A nice crowd filtered in as they traversed the parking lot and filled the stands surrounding Bolingbrook’s beautiful diamond.
Defense and pitching are usually the name of the game in the playoffs, and Thursday was no exception. Even with a steady southern breeze carrying fly balls deep into the outfield starters Jacob Nagel and James Kulak were outstanding.
Kulak, Neuqua’s starter, struck out the first batter and a tough error by his shortstop put the sophomore on the spot early in the first. Bolingbrook’s outstanding right-fielder Jeremiah LeBron hit a rocket right back at Kulak that would have put him out of the game if Kulak hadn’t reacted in time to protect himself and double up the runner at first.
Nagel started the bottom of the first with a strikeout before Eric Nelson hit a smash past Bolingbrook’s first baseman. Another tough error. Nagel got Neuqua’s Kevin Ringlein on a fly ball to left. Then the action started; and it looked like it might be a high scoring affair.
Nagel hit Will Drake; and with two men on and two outs Tim Schneider hit a rope into the right-center gap scoring both runners. Tyler Cristofaro hit a screamer to Bolingbrook’s center fielder and Nagel got out of the first.
Kulak pitched to contact and moved through a smooth second with two deep fly balls and a strikeout.
Neuqua started off the second with bad intentions, but Bolingbrook’s defense was ready. Max Vercautren hit a shot and was robbed on an incredible diving catch by the Brook’s center fielder Myles Sandeen. Jake Wenz came up and hit a bullet that was snared by third baseman Jordan Jackson on a stellar diving stop.
With two outs Ryan Wheeler singled on a line on line drive. Neuqua pushed another run across when the Wildcat’s outstanding shortstop James Gargano hit a bomb off the center field wall. It would have been gone if not for Bolingbrook’s exceptionally high fence. It was now 3-0 Neuqua.
With a three-run lead Kulak dominated with an uncanny change of pace on all his pitches. The lefty found his groove until the fifth when Bolingbrook’s lightning quick first baseman T.J. DeHerrera led off by banging a double off the center field wall. Frank Dixon singled with a soft liner to right and both runners moved up with some trouble in outfield. With runners on second and third and nobody out Kulak reached back and got a strikeout.
Bolingbrook head coach Scott Thyer pinch hit the next batter with Jalan Cruz, and he didn’t disappoint. Cruz hit a smash up the middle scoring both runners. It was a 3-2 game heading into the sixth.
Kulak got the first batter on groundball to second and out came Neuqua coach Robin Renner. With Bolingbrook’s number three and four hitters due up, both right-handed, Renner went to his bullpen. Connor Rektorski, in a clutch relief appearance, got a monster out when hard hitting Jeremiah LeBron flied out to right. He struck out Jordan Jackson to end the inning.
“Kulak has kind of been like that all year,” said Renner. “He’s young. He’s thin. He’s not as strong as he will be later on in his career; but his ball is very difficult to hit – to square up. And they did not do that very often. Nobody has all year. Later in the game they started to find the barrel a little bit more. And I just didn’t want him to face that three hitter (LeBron) again.”
Rektorski got two quick outs in the seventh before walking a batter. Nobody was taking anything for granted, and nobody was leaving. He got the final batter on a dub back to the mound and it looked like he might run it all the way to the bag. Neuqua moved on; and will face another neighbor in Naperville Central on Saturday in Bolingbrook at 10:00 .
“I thought we had good at-bats,” Coach Thyer said. “Even though their pitcher was cruising through the first several innings of the game. Our job is to hit the ball hard somewhere, and I thought we did that through the first couple innings. And they made some great defensive plays. Hats off to them for making some great defensive plays. And then he settled in and he was really tough to deal with. The good thing was that we stretched out his pitch count a little bit. And being as hot and humid as it is it’s not fun to work that hard out there.”
Coach Thyer knew it was a tough loss for his guys, but they came to compete and it was an outstanding game all around. The players, the coaching, the umpiring, and the crowd were all first class.
“It’s fun to be a part of,” said Thyer. “It’s certainly nice from my end to be able to watch our guys compete. More than anything just to be with our guys has been a real treat all year round. Just the way they go about their business both on and off the field. They’re a class group. There’s no better group than the 24 guys that were sitting in our dugout tonight. There could be groups as good, but none better.”