It took a tremendous pitching effort by St. Rita’s Jake Shepski to put a stop to one of the longest winning streaks in Lyons Township High School baseball history.
The Notre Dame-bound Shepski fired a five-hit shutout, allowing one walk and striking out seven in winning a terrific pitcher’s duel with the Lions’ Sam Heilenbach in the Class 4A Reavis Sectional semifinal last Wednesday.
The 2-0 decision snapped a 17-game winning streak by the Lions (27-9), who came into the game having won 21 of their last 22 games.
“Their kid pitched really well and Sam Heilenbach pitched well,” LTHS coach George Ushela said. “We swung the bats okay against him but we didn’t get guys on until two were out.”
St. Rita (35-4), which eliminated defending state champion Mt. Carmel to advance to Monday’s Crestwood Supersectional against Downers Grove South, mustered only two hits off Heilenbach, who struck out 10.
But the Mustangs took advantage of two throwing errors to score runs in the fourth and fifth. Shepski scored the winning run when he walked, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on an error.
But the narrow loss demonstrated how far the Lions have come since last summer, when St. Rita defeated them 11-0 in the summer league state title game, and even earlier this season.
“When we were 6-7 I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve just got to get a winning record,'” Ushela said. “Early on we were finding ways to lose games with walks and errors. The other teams weren’t really earning much.
“We started playing better defense, got guys back from injury and that’s when we started hitting, too.”
Ushela could recall only one winning streak longer than this year’s extended run, which began with sweeps of Downers Grove North and Glenbard West. The Lions won the opener against Downers in eight innings after scoring four runs in the bottom of the seventh to tie it, won the second game in the bottom of the seventh and then averted a loss in the bottom of the seventh of the third game.
LTHS then won 13-inning and eight-inning games in the Glenbard West series.
“It’s special to win that many games in a row,” Ushela said. “You don’t do it if you don’t have good pitching depth and hitting depth.
“We were playing some close games and winning. It was a different guy each day getting a big hit. We pitched out of jams, got key strikeouts.”
Pitching was a definite strength for the Lions, who boasted a starting rotation which included Heilenbach and junior Tom Hickey, who developed into a bona fide ace in his first full season of pitching. Hickey, from Brookfield, lost his first decision in relief but rebounded to finish 7-1 with a 0.89 earned-run average and has been nominated for All-State honors.
“He had a pretty special year,” Ushela said. “We’re going to have a good season next year.
“We’re going to have good pitching depth with Hickey, Quinton Hughes, who didn’t pitch much this year because of injury, Jeff Wolf and Charlie Harrigan. The trick is replacing some of the hitters.
Most of the top hitters, including Heilenbach, Max Larsen and Sam Cybulski, have graduated but all-conference second baseman Jack Oremus returns and Ushela is confident the talent pipeline will continue to produce.
“We always have guys who are ready to take the next step,” Ushela said. “We’ll be competitive.”