Marian Catholic wins first Class 3A state championship

By Sean Duncan

JOLIET – Midway through the season, people were piling on Marian Catholic for grossly underachieving.

On Saturday, the players on Marian Catholic were piling on each other after they put the finishing touches on their 10-2 victory over LaSalle-Peru to win the Class 3A state championship at Silver Cross Field.

Indeed, it was a turbulent season for the Spartans, who came into the season with sky-high expectations only to struggle mightily throughout the spring. But they turned it around at the right time to win the Chicago Heights school’s first state championship.

Marian Catholic finished its topsy-turvy season at 25-17 – the most losses a state champion has ever amassed in IHSA history.

“We were used to people writing us off,” said senior centerfielder Rob Cifelli. “We knew we had it in us. The middle of the season there was a lot of drama. The team definitely came together, started bonding more as a team off the field, and picked each other up.

“Coach said the one who falls and gets back up is stronger than the one who never fell down.”

 The Spartans certainly fell down a lot during the season. In fact, they stumbled into the playoffs having lost nine of their last 12 games. They also had a stretch in mid-to-late April when they lost six of nine games.

“We had our back to the wall in the middle of the season and we didn’t know if we were going to knock it down or not,” said Iowa-bound outfielder Devin Pickett. “Coach said the seniors needed to finish strong.”

Marian Catholic certainly finished with a gusto, effectively ending any drama in the championship game by scoring eight runs in the third inning to take a 9-1 lead. The Spartans had four hits in the inning, and the usually rock-solid defense of LaSalle-Peru (34-7) made two costly errors. All eight runs were unearned in the inning.

Arizona State-bound Brett Lilek delivered the big blow with a two-run double. Junior catcher Brent Feldner also had a big two-run double in the inning.

Marian Catholic had several offensive contributors. Lilek, who earned the state semifinal victory with a dominant 11-strikeout performance, finished 2-for-3 with two RBI. Cifelli, a John Carroll College recruit, led off the game with a single and came around to score in the first, and finished 2-for-4 with two runs, RBI and a stolen base – his 54th of the season.

Junior left fielder Patrick Swanson also had two hits, scored two runs and drove in a run, and junior third baseman Brad Bohlen went 1-for-2 with a RBI and run.

The offense was more than enough for senior right-hander Ben Santori, who yielded 11 hits, two runs, struck out five with no walks to improve to 4-2. The 6-foot-2 Santori may have been the postseason MVP for the Spartans, as he threw an incredible eight-inning shutout to beat Simeon 1-0 in the supersectional.

“I was always confident in myself,” said Santori. “I knew I would be in relief a lot, but when I finally got my chance (to start), I took advantage of it.”

Marian Catholic’s complete victory ended LaSalle-Peru’s 16-game win streak. It also marked the final game coached by LaSalle-Peru’s Bill Booker, whose contract was not renewed after 20 successful seasons at the school – a controversial decision that was clearly not well-received among the community. Booker, who is one of the most personable coaches in the state, received a standing ovation before the game and during the trophy presentation. The school’s superintendent, Steven Wrobleski, was summarily booed by LaSalle-Peru’s energetic crowd.

In Booker’s 20 years at the school, he guided the Cavaliers to two state appearances and had a career record of 376-264-5. The Cavaliers won 10 straight games after it was announced Booker would not be back.

“I’m in awe of my family of how they’ve handled this,” said Booker. “People in the community know what type of people we are. I am proud to be part of this community.

“I just couldn’t be prouder of this group. They had a goal in mind, and they just about got it done.”

The Cavaliers manufactured 11 hits, seven of which came from their middle infield. Shortstop and leadoff man John Hiester went 4-for-4 with a run, while second baseman Adam Happ went 3-for-3. Right fielder Casey Huebbe connected for a deep home run to right field in the sixth inning to make it 10-2.

In the end, the LaSalle-Peru could never rebound from the rejuvenated Spartans’ quick start. Marian Catholic, which opened the season winning its first six games, closed out on an eight-game win streak.

“It’s about time,” said Lilek, who was drafted in the 37th round by the Seattle Mariners. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Said Pickett: “I’ve been wanting this since my freshman year. We came together, all 23 of us. This is the perfect ending. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

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