Throughout most of the season, it appeared a decent bet the Catholic High School baseball team would close its season at state in suburban St. Louis.
Until the very end.
Coach Jason Daugherty said his team was lackluster in back-to-back losses, a 12-1 rout against Lebanon and a 2-1 loss to rival Bolivar heading into the postseason.
“I brought my seniors together and asked them where we need to go from here, and they had some great thoughts,” Daugherty said. “I kind of picked their brain, and we got all on the same page there.”
The Irish (22-4) have righted the course, outscoring postseason opponents 47-7 in four wins to put the late-season misstep behind them, and look more like the team coaches declared Class 3’s best in the statewide preseason poll.
In fact, the Irish are two wins from the program’s first state title since 1997. That’s also the last time a Springfield high school baseball team won state. Hillcrest won it in 1988 and 1979, and Glendale in 1976 and 1978.
Catholic opens play at state at 4 p.m. today against New Madrid County Central at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O’Fallon.
Daugherty said the Fightin’ Irish are a team that does everything well, but doesn’t stand out in any phase of the game.
Three pitchers — senior Colin Shaughnessy, and juniors Tyler Ast and Matthew Tipton — have combined for a 16-2 record. Ast went the distance in the sectional, and Tipton did the same in Wednesday’s quarterfinal win against Fair Grove.
“The jump from last year was probably the biggest jump I’ve ever seen out of our pitchers; speed-wise, they jumped five to six miles per hour (apiece), at least,” senior catcher Rob Ruzicka said. “And their off-speed has been really good. Usually when we throw a starter out there, they’ll be out until the sixth or seventh inning, so we don’t really need too much with the bullpen.”
Juniors like Ast and Tipton have made big-time contributions all season, the team’s four seniors reported after a workout Tuesday. Juniors Eric Atwell and Brayton Ballenger have joined senior Eric Smith as offensive leaders. The three were hitting better than .400 through district play.
“Our junior class is really solid, and they’ve got a lot of kids that all can play,” Shaughnessy said. “They’re all pretty focused in, able to hit and field and pitch all at the same time.”
That mirrors the balanced outlook of the team, which was hitting .355 through district play, and has as many home runs (two) out of the nine hole as any other spot in the order.
Mostly, it’s been just good, fundamental pitching and defense that have led the Irish.
“The key to success has been our pitching and our defense,” senior Danny Richardson said.
“Our bats have always come around. We were kind of cold in that Fair Grove game, but our pitching and defense got us through, and we scrapped in some runs and it got us through.”
Catholic is making its fourth trip to state since winning that 1997 title. Daugherty, which has the Irish back at state for the second time in his eight years at the school, said the Irish have the makeup to stay in games and continue to scratch out wins.
“A lot of teams I’ve had here work really hard, and they work really hard,” Daugherty said. “We hit the ball well, we field the ball well, we throw the ball well. We do everything decent. I’m not sure there’s one thing that stands out.
“I think we can score some runs and we can stop people from scoring runs.”