Lyons Township Baseball Team Headed Downstate Again
The Lyons Township baseball team, last year's Class 4A state champions, earned a return trip to the state semifinals at Joliet's Silver Cross Field by defeating Marist 3-2 in Monday's Crestwood Super-Sectional at Standard Bank Stadium.
Another outstanding pitching staff for the Lyons Township baseball team has allowed no more than two runs to be scored in 23 of 39 games this season.
Accomplishing the feat once again against Marist in the Class 4A Crestwood Super-Sectional Monday was the sweetest and most important so far.
And the toughest.
The defending state champions are headed back to the state semifinals by holding on for a 3-2 victory after senior Steve Heilenbach relieved senior starting pitcher Matt Robare in the fourth inning with the bases loaded and no outs but maintained the lead.
LT (26-12-1) will play Minooka (27-13) at 5 p.m. Friday at Silver Cross Field in Joliet after the other semifinal between Oak Park-River Forest (29-9) and Grant (25-11) at 3 p.m. The winners will play for the state championship at 5 p.m. Saturday after the third-place game at 3 p.m.
The Lions are headed downstate in back-to-back years for the first time in their program’s 10 appearances. Robare (8-2) and Heilenbach stranded a combined 12 runners on base for Marist (29-12) -- eight in scoring position including the bases loaded in the first and second innings.
“They’re competitors, and our pitching’s been good all year. It’s never easy, but it’s fun,” LT coach George Ushela said. “We survived six walks and three hit batters. That made it plenty nervous for us.”
The Lions have had quite a journey back after graduating most of the lineup from last year’s dominating 37-4 state championship run.
With Heilenbach, junior third baseman/pitcher Keith Lehmann and senior catcher Brad Taylor their only returning starters, the Lions started this year 6-4-1. The Lions were seeded No. 5 in the Mt. Carmel Sectional but beat two higher-seeded opponents.
“We weren’t as good at the beginning of the year as last year. (But) our pitching was just as good,” Ushela said. “I like our chances (at state). We’re there and we came through a tough route with (beating) St. Laurence, Mt. Carmel and Marist.”
LT’s pitching staff has been consistently solid. Ten pitchers have combined for a 1.95 earned-run average with 294 strikeouts in 250 2/3 innings, nine shutouts and two no-hitters.
Thanks to Robare and Heilenbach, the Lions were able to ride Monday’s early 3-0 lead with two runs in the top of the first and one in the second.
Senior left fielder and leadoff hitter Evan Booth scored twice and had half of LT’s six hits, going 3 for 4 with a double. Junior Keith Lehmann was 2 for 4 and knocked in all three runs with a two-run double and two-out RBI single.
Robare faced bases loaded with two outs in each of the first two innings but escaped with a ground out back to the mound and a called-third strikeout.
When the bases were loaded again with no outs in the fourth, Ushela decided to bring in Heilenbach, who was playing second base. Robare moved to center field, replacing Matt Aikens, and Scott Galka took over at second.
“We have three really top-notch pitchers with (junior Keith) Lehmann, Robare and Heilenbach,” Ushela said. “(Heilenbach’s) arm was ready. He was throwing well in the pen. He’s a three-year starter for us. He’s pitched some big games. He wanted the ball, and it was time.”
Marist pitcher Mike Hearne hit a hit grounder to third baseman Lehmann and his throw home went past Taylor, bringing in two runs and putting runners on third and second.
Heilenbach got a called-third strikeout, a grounder back to him in which he looked down the lead runner and then another strikeout to survive.
Marist had runners on second and first the next two innings, but junior shortstop Stewart Nelson thwarted those threats. Nelson initiated an inning-ending double play in the fifth and made a nice backhand stop for the final out in the sixth.
The only inning in which the RedHawks didn’t have a baserunner was the seventh with Heilenbach getting a strikeout to end the game. Heilenbach (4-4), who struck out five of the 16 batters he faced, recorded the team’s first save of the season, after a complete game in the Lions’ 8-3 victory over top-seeded St. Laurence in the sectional semifinals May 30.
“He’s got nasty stuff. He’s a different pitcher than Matt (Robare). It’s a different look and he’s always been tough to hit,” Ushela said. “Steve’s a very free-spirited kid but quite talented. He’s a horse and I’ve just got to keep him on track with the plan, but I think he’s pretty focused.”
LT came out strong against the Notre Dame-bound Hearne (9-5), who pitched the entire game and had five strikeouts and five walks with two hit batters on 119 pitches.
Booth opened the game with a double on a fly ball to left that appeared to be lost in the lights. After Heilenbach walked, Lehmann smacked a two-run double over the head of left fielder Bryan Polak.
With two outs in the second, Booth singled to center and stole second, Heilenbach walked and Lehmann singled home Booth.
Nelson and junior Tom Prescott, who singled, reached second on stolen bases in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively. Heilenbach reached second in the seventh after a throwing error following a leaping catch on Lehmann’s liner to second baseman Conor Funk.
In 2011, Heilenbach and Lehmann were part of the starting rotation with graduated Connor Cuff and Zach Remijas, who both had 11-0 records. The seniors started last year’s state semifinal and championship games, although Lehmann pitched one inning of relief for Remijas in the 4-1 semifinal victory over Mt. Carmel.
This season, Lehmann is a staff-best 9-2 with a 0.94 ERA after throwing a five-hitter in Saturday’s 9-1 victory over No. 2-seeded Mt. Carmel in the sectional final.
Lehmann also has a team-high 36 RBIs and shares the team lead of seven home runs with Booth (23 RBIs) and Heilenbach (27 RBIs).
Taylor (2 HR, 17 RBIs) caught last season but also bats after usually being substituted for a designated hitter in 2011. Robare (17 RBIs) also saw significant pitching time while Booth was mainly a pinch-runner, scoring against Mt. Carmel.
Booth typifies this year’s squad. Now getting his chance to play on a regular basis this season, he’s not only leading off but boasts a team-high .361 batting average and a team-best 40 runs.
“He’s been our leader. He’s really stepped it up,” Ushela said. “He’s been a second baseman, third baseman, left fielder, DH for us. Last summer, we didn’t know where the heck Adam was going to play. I told him, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to contribute, but you’re going to contribute.’ ”
Mt. Carmel Sectional/Reavis Regional recaps
Entering the Mt. Carmel Sectional as the No. 5 seed, Lyons Township used five runs in the top of the first inning Saturday to take charge in its 9-1 victory over No. 2 seed-Mt. Carmel for the sectional title after beating top-seeded St. Laurence 8-3 May 30.
The Lions never looked back against Mt. Carmel (32-6) thanks to a complete-game, five-hitter by winning pitcher Lehmann.
In the LT first, Robare had an RBI double, Lehmann, Taylor and Nelson had RBI singles and junior Mike Lorenz brought home a run on a sacrifice fly.
Robare and Lehmann each had two hits. Robare singled home a run in the second for a 6-0 lead, and Lehmann added an RBI double in the sixth.
The Caravan didn’t score until the fourth, when they achieved their first baserunner of the game.
In beating St. Laurence (30-7-1), LT got another pitching gem, this time from Heilenbach, who allowed just four hits in a complete-game performance and smacked a two-run homer in the top of the third that gave the Lions a 2-0 lead.
Booth, who scored on the home run, then hit a two-run shot of his own in the fourth after senior Blake Murray singled for a 4-1 lead. The Lions extended the lead to 8-1 with a four-run fifth that included back-to-back RBI singles by Murray and Nelson and a sacrifice fly from Booth. Murray scored the final run of the inning while courtesy runner Aikens got caught in a pickoff between first and second base.
LT won the Reavis Regional by beating No. 13-seed Morton 12-2 in five innings May 26 after a 10-7 first-round victory over No. 10-seed Reavis May 24.
Winning pitcher Robare worked all five innings versus Morton, allowing just two hits with four strikeouts and three walks.
Booth (2 for 3, solo home run, 3 runs), Taylor (2 for 3, triple, 3 RBIs), Robare (RBI double, 2 bases-loaded walks, 3 RBIs), Heilenbach (3 for 3, RBI single, 3 runs) and Nelson (double, run) led the offense, which received 10 walks with one hit batter. The Lions scored five runs in the bottom of the fourth to increase a one-run lead and added three more in the fifth to end the game by virtue of the 10-run rule.
LT held off Reavis (17-19) as winning pitcher Lehmann started, was relieved and then returned to the mound to secure the victory in a wild seventh inning.
With the Lions leading 10-3, Lehmann was relieved in the top of the seventh but then re-entered after the Rams closed to 10-5 and had the bases loaded with no outs. Two more runs scored, but Lehmann then got a strikeout and double play to secure the victory.
Booth and Heilenbach hit back-to-back home runs in the first. Taylor’s two-run blast was part of a six-run fifth.