The first state championship trophy in Nazareth Academy baseball history briefly had another distinctive feature Saturday.
There were a pair of buffalo horns on top.
Moments after the Roadrunners’ 5-1 championship victory in the IHSA Class 3A state finals over Chatham Glenwood in Joliet, Nazareth coach Lee Milano again referenced the midseason story he told his players about buffalo and cattle.
“When the storm comes, the cattle run away. The buffalo takes the storm head on,” Milano said. “So we are the buffalo. When we face adversity, take it head on.”
The Roadrunners (34-7) weathered many storms for their fifth trip to the state semifinals. They concluded with a program best 17-game winning streak.
“Just watching that last strike is something you always dream of. That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever be a part of,” said senior designated hitter Luke Brabham.
“It’s insane. That last out, the feeling in our bodies, was just amazing,” sophomore left fielder Cole Reifsteck said.
Nazareth played five seniors at state but have 10 players signed or verbally committed for college baseball, five to NCAA Division I programs – seniors Brabham (Morton), Sebastian Gutierrez (Parkland), Sam Wampler (St. Ambrose), Joey Bennett (Aurora) and Redmond Murphy (Central); junior Lucas Smith (Illinois-Chicago); sophomores Nick Drtina (Louisville), John Hughes (North Carolina) and Cooper Malamazian (Indiana); and freshman Jaden Fauske (Louisville).
“Even before the season started, [we knew] it’s a talented group but still a lot of young guys,” said shortstop and leadoff hitter Smith. “Obviously, it’s great to win this, but to win it with a team you love is even better.”
The Roadrunners finished second in 2015, third in 2018 and 2012 and fourth in 2011 also with a program best 34-7 record.
Milano coached them all, compiling 531 victories in his 23rd season as head coach.
“We talk about this a lot. We play for all of the guys that have been in the program all of the years. We play for all of the young kids that watch and cheer us on and want to be a Roadrunner. And then we play for each other,” Milano said.
Before state, Nazareth received a visit from former Chicago White Sox player Jim Thome, the Hall of Famer with 612 career home runs.
“He said embrace the moment. You’re never going to get this chance again and just look around and calm yourself down,” Brabham said. “I think that really helped us.”
The Roadrunners broke a scoreless tie with five runs in the bottom of the fifth inning behind runs batted in from sophomore Luca Fiore (single), Reifsteck (single), Brabham (sacrifice fly) and Drtina (single) and a two-out delayed double steal with Drtina and Malamazian from third. Fauske (single), senior Robbie Mishka, courtesy runner for Wampler (walk), Reifsteck and Smith (hit by pitch) also scored.
Winning pitcher Drtina (5.1 innings) and junior reliever Finn O’Meara (1.2 innings) held Glenwood (27-7) to three hits. Drtina (12-1) broke the 25-year-old single season record for pitching victories.
“A perfect time to do it,” said Drtina, who learned he would start Friday night at home.
“My defense, my coaches all put faith in me,” Drtina said. “The fans were great, loud. I just took that energy and put it forth and knew that I would get the job done. It’s indescribable, amazing.”
Nazareth had four of its five hits in the fifth. Fiore and Reifsteck, the No. 8 and 9 hitters with a combined 18 RBIs, started the scoring after Fiore had an unsuccessful bunt.
“I just went with an approach to stick the bat out and [the ball] went between first and second,” Fiore said. “It’s an awesome feeling to win a state title, especially for [Milano], whose been coaching for so long.”
Reifsteck’s brother, Breven, was a sophomore on the 2018 state qualifier.
“For my brother, for everyone who has played before, all of this is for them,” Reifsteck said.
The Roadrunners won’t forget their 6-5 sectional semifinal victory over Lemont after trailing 5-0 and down to their last strike five times.
Another turning point came May 3. Nazareth was 17-7 after losing the fourth of its past seven games to Marian Catholic 7-5 in extra innings.
“Lucas Smith texted me after we lost and said, ‘Is it time to panic yet?’ ” Milano said. “I said, ‘Trust me. I’ve been through it before. Don’t panic.’ And we won 17 in a row and won it all.”