When Brad Zoelle played baseball for the St. Charles Freshman B team, he saw potential. State Champioship potential. Three years and 12 athletic seasons later, potential finally became reality for Zoelle. St Charles – once again – hoisted an IHSA state championship trophy over its collective head Monday night when the Saints crushed New Trier 12-3 in the Class AA title game at Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva.
Zoelle, a three-sport athlete in all four years of high school, had never appeared in a state title game prior to Monday. In his last try, the senior first baseman became a champion. “It’s my 12th season in high school sports, and it couldn’t end in a better
way,” said Zoelle, who went 3-for-3 with 4 RBI in the game of his life.
“This is the game we’ve been preparing for our entire high school career,” he said. “We didn’t hold anything back. A crowd of 2,750 fans, a state tournament record throng of mostly St. Charles supporters, showed up to see if the Saints could do the unthinkable – win an unprecedented sixth IHSA state team title this 1998-99 school year and the 31st in school history.
Probably the most unlikely of the six champions, the Saints (31-11) came into the quarterfinals as the only qualifying team with double-digit losses.
They ended the tournament as just the third team in Class AA history to win the state title with double-digit losses. “We just put so much hard work in,” said Saints junoir third baseman Kyle Robinson. “At the beginning of the tournament, we just had the momentum going.”
The Saints may have been 5-9 at one point this season, but they won 26 of their final 28 games. They were the best team in the state at just the right time.
Senoir lefty Justin Lata epitomized the turnaround. The pitcher was 1-4 at one point this season, but Lata picked up both the semifinal and final victories on Monday to finish the season 10-4. After throwing 97 pitches in the 10-0 semifinal triumph over Rock Island just a few hours earlier, Lata came into the title game in relief of sophmore starter Jason Kiley in the second inning. The Saints trailed 2-1 at that point and New Trier (29-9) runners were on first and second base with no outs. Lata escaped the jam without a run scoring, eventually earning the win by pitching 3 scoreless innings of no-hit relief work. By the time Lata left the game at the end of the fourth inning, he had thrown 42 more pitches. The Saints also had a 10-2 lead. “We brought the bats today, I’ll tell you that,” said St. Charles senior center fielder Pat Durr. “We almost 10-runned a team in the state title game, you never see that. Out with a bang.” There were many keys to this title win, from Lata’s relief stint to junoir Jeff Pietryla’s 3 final innings that earned him the save and allowed coach Len Asquini to keep Jim Caine’s tired arm off the mound.
The Saints defense was phenomenal. They turned 2 double plays – including one to end the game. From the shortstop Chris Brown, to second baseman James Trayser, to Zoelle at first, the Saints doubled up New Trier’s Matt Lottich (3-for-3) and Nick Apostal to add more history to St. Charles trophy case. “It might get a little stale with people – all the state champioships, and always being on top,” Asquini said. ‘It may be the sixth one for the school, but it’s the first one for us. That’s what makes it special.”
This was truly a special team – the first team in program history to advance to the state quarterfinals. Caine wound up as the tournaments MVP, while Trayser, Robinson and Lata were named to the all-tournament team. You could easily pencil in the entire St. Charles roster on the ballot, though. The Saints scored 5 unearned runs in the third and 4 unearned runs in the fourth to build the 10-2 lead. Amazingly, all 9 runs came with two outs. Zoelle had a 2-run single in the third, while Tyler Sheehan had a 2-run double. Durr, Robinson and Zoelle had 3 straight RBI singles in the fifth. In the 2-run fifth that gave the Saints a 12-2 lead, Robinson (2-for-3) drove in a run whith a single and Zoelle drove in another with a sacrifice fly. The Saints blew out a New Trier team that beat Edwardsville 11-1 in the quarterfinals, and then beat Andrew 15-14 in Monday’s semifinals.
[Dailey Herald, by Kevin Shmidt]