For Providence Baseball the task at hand is to maintain. After their thrilling see-saw 4-3 victory over a determined Plainfield South team last night the only question left for Mark Smith’s team is: how?
Plainfield South and Providence traveled down to Champaign to square off in a touted Supersectional showdown between Hall of Fame Head Coach Phil Bodine and last year’s Daily Southtown Coach of the Year Mark Smith. The game took place at gorgeous Illinois Field on the campus of The University of Illinois. The sky was high; and a blinding sun and gusting winds made for treacherous outfield play. The elements were a factor; and the true bounces of the FieldTurf were not enough for a Plainfield South program that prides itself on defense.
Defense was the difference. Plainfield South loaded the bases in the first; and with nobody out it looked like the Cougars were ready to pounce and devour before Providence even batted. South pushed a run across with three singles that echoed through the stadium with the unmistakable sound of contact. They weren’t getting fooled.
That’s when South’s Antonio Gutierrez barreled up on a line drive to straight away right field. Providence’s Tom Kelley stepped back and positioned himself perfectly for a throw to the plate. It didn’t look possible, but it happened. Kelley stepped into a perfect strike on the line to his catcher Jim Jeffries for an inning ending double play.
Plainfield South junior starter, and Mississippi State recruit, Austin Marozas was sharp as usual. Providence tried to make him work; but a stubborn Marozas pounded the zone with his tailing two-seamer and corkscrew slider. He hung tough as his defense collapsed on several occasions. Marozas’ plan was simple and formulaic. Throw low strikes and let his infield defense gobble up ground balls.
Unfortunately, the bounces weren’t true enough for South, Marozas, and Head Coach Phil Bodine:
Providence Head Coach Mark Smith experienced the flipside of the defensive coin; and he knew it was decisive:
Coach Smith, his players, and the entire Providence community is hungry. That hunger has fueled four baseball State Championships; and it is a byproduct of deprivation – real or imagined. The Celtics won their first IHSA State Championship amid the threat of contraction by the Joliet Archdiocese. In 1978 a lack of funding threatened the very existence of Providence. After the Celtics’ first state title, the Chicago Tribune printed a feature on the existential threat to any Providence baseball history:
In 1982 Providence’s legendary Head Coach Jaime Garcia found a way to tap that angry drive for his second title:
Flash forward to 2014, and more than 30 years later, Providence Catholic High School has churned an angry defense of their community into a 2016 team built around a ferocious defense that changes the trajectory of baseball games. Mark Smith knows that you play to your strength; and right now he is challenging opposing offenses to find a hole. Go ahead and hit the ball. If it’s in the park chances are that it’s an out. The Celtics’ defense is taking outs away from opposing offenses.
Coach Smith is taking a third straight team to the IHSA 4A State Finals at Silver Cross Field this week to take on Plainfield North in a semifinal on Friday afternoon at 3:00. This should be a classic. A powerful Plainfield North squad will want to mash the Celtics out of contention for a historic three-peat.
Coach Smith and his Celtics will want things to stay the same: pound the zone and go get the ball. It’s only fitting that half of this year’s 4A State finalists are from Will County. Everyone knows who you have to go through – for whatever reason – when you come to the Joliet area to play baseball: its going to be a team from Will County.
Baseball isn’t war; but every great leader must find a way to exhort his troops to a victory that requires maximum physical effort. And any great baseball coach knows that to fend off an opponent’s hunger he must use that effort to avoid a defeat and carry the momentum of victory into the next battle. Von Clausewitz, in his classic treatise On War, wrote:
But it is significant that, just as it takes a powerful archer to bend the bow beyond the average, so it takes a powerful mind to drive his army to the limit. It is one thing for an army that has been badly defeated, is beset by danger from all sides, and is disintegrating like crumbling masonry, to seek it’s safety in utmost physical effort. It is altogether different when a victorious army, buoyed by its own exhilaration, remains a willing instrument in the hands of its commander.
Mark Smith knows that whatever awaits him at Silver Cross this weekend won’t be easy. But he is not afraid of greatness, and neither is a baseball team on the brink of national high school baseball history.