The philosopher George Santayana once said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
Nazareth was well aware of its past heading into Monday’s Class 3A North Central College Supersectional and the Roadrunners made history rather than repeating it, rallying to defeat St. Francis 5-4 to advance to the state semifinals for the first time.
Nazareth (34-5) will take on Oak Forest (27-7) in the first state semifinal at 10 a.m. Friday at Silver Cross Field in Joliet.
The Roadrunners, who set a school record for victories by beating Riverside-Brookfield 4-3 in the sectional championship game on Saturday, were playing at Zimmerman Stadium for the third straight year.
Two years ago, they were heavily favored to beat Grayslake Central but blew a big lead and lost 8-7. Last season brought more heartbreak when the Roadrunners again coughed up a late lead and lost 8-6 to Marian Central.
“It took us a while to get over this hump,” Nazareth shortstop Mike Barajas said. “We’ve been here three years. We have a little bit more experience than the other team and it really paid off in the end.”
St. Francis (25-13) was making its supersectional debut after beating Richmond-Burton on Saturday to win the first sectional title in school history. The underdog Spartans sprinted out to a 4-0 lead against Nazareth starter Patrick Kelly, a Grand Valley State recruit.
Singles by starting pitcher Eric Stout and Jack Roback combined with a wild pitch gave St. Francis a 1-0 lead in the first. The Spartans added three runs in the third on five hits, including RBI singles from Jack Petrando and Joel Birch, and another devastating defeat appeared to be in the offing for Nazareth.
“Of course you’re going to have little butterflies (when) you’re down 4-0,” Barajas said. “But we stayed focused. We knew if we work hard, we play our game, things will fall our way.”
The Spartans had an opportunity to score several more runs in the third, but Dominic Purpura relieved Kelly with the bases loaded and retired K.C. Zimmerman on a dribbler to the mound to end the inning.
The Roadrunners began their comeback by scoring an unearned run off Stout in the fourth, then tied it with three in the top of the fifth. Barajas delivered the big blow, a two-run triple that one-hopped the wall in left, and scored the tying run on Anthony Baldassano’s safety squeeze.
Stout (10-3), a Butler recruit, pitched valiantly for the Spartans. The southpaw tossed 120 pitches in a complete-game effort and surrendered only five hits, but also walked five and hit three batters, two of whom scored.
With two outs in the sixth, Stout hit Kelly and Matthew Radford and Kane Lombardo followed with a single to score courtesy runner Sean Maloney with what turned out to be the deciding run.
“We know what we’re going to get out of Eric,” St. Francis coach Rich Janor said. “He’s going to give us everything he has. Obviously his last game as a senior and he left it all on the field. He did everything he could to get us where we wanted to be. It just didn’t go our way.”
Purpura (8-1) allowed just one hit and one walk in three innings to get the win in relief. Miami (Ohio) recruit Ryan Powers, who had just one day of rest after hurling 6 1/3 innings to get the win on Saturday, was summoned in the sixth with two outs and the tying run at second.
Powers’ first pitch hit Roback, but he got Tom Ameche on a fielder’s choice chopper to third to get out of the inning, then pitched a perfect seventh to get his fourth save.
“Yesterday I knew I had to get myself ready in case I was needed for today,” said Powers, who threw 12 pitches. “Yesterday was a day (to) rest, get my legs back, ice my arm, pretty much get myself prepared for the next game, which was today. After going to my bullpen and playing catch and with the help of a little bit of adrenaline I was able to come in and record the last four outs.”
Powers, who along with Lombardo had two hits, believes experience is what made the difference for the Roadrunners, who won the IHSBCA summer league title last year. He started the supersectional game against Grayslake Central as a sophomore.
“That experience is just invaluable when you’re in situations like this,” Powers said. “Of course you hate to (be trailing). You start to put pressure on yourself, but that’s where the experience comes in.
“We’ve been in this spot for the past two years and with [capturing the] summer [tournament] we finally got a little taste of the winning mentality and how it feels to get over that hump.
“Now that we’ve carried it over to the spring, we’re just hoping we’re not done yet. Hopefully we can win these next two games and bring home the big trophy.”
No matter what happens this weekend, the Roadrunners are assured of bringing home the first trophy in school history.
“The pressure is off us now,” Barajas said. “Whatever happens, happens. We just really wanted to get over this hump. We worked hard. I’m glad all the hard work paid off.”
Hard work paid off for the Spartans, who played great ball over their amazing run. They were seeded third in their regional, so advanced four rounds farther than expected.
“(We’re) happy but not satisfied,” Stout said. “We definitely wish we could have come out with a win but we had a great season. We made school history so we’re all proud of that.
“The last two weeks were unbelievable. Everything just started clicking. We became hot at the right time. It’s a bunch of guys we’ll never forget.”
Ultimately, the Spartans lost to a better team in Nazareth.
“They definitely did not get lucky,” Stout said. “They’re a great team. Hats off to them. I hope they win it. We’re pulling for them.”
Powers returned the compliment.
“You have to give St. Francis credit,” Powers said. “They came in, hit the ball and had no pressure today, [played] just like they’ve been here many times before, so kudos to them. They’re a great a ballclub and Stout really pitched great today until the third time around.”
After the narrow escape against St. Francis, in which they made three errors, the Roadrunners know they need to perform better to have success this weekend.
“Basically we’ve just got to play our brand of baseball no matter who we play,” Powers said. “We weren’t playing our typical good pitching, good defense today. Now we’ve got our couple bad innings out of the way and hoping we can play 14 good innings of baseball on Friday and Saturday.”