There aren’t too many better times to hit your first home run of the year than the two-out, three-run blast that sends your team to the Illinois Little League state finals.
Western Springs District team cleanup hitter Andrew Gatland turned on the first pitch he saw in the fourth inning of Monday night’s semifinal against the Jackie Robinson West team, pounding it over the left field fence for three RBIs and the deciding runs in the team’s 7-5 win.
“I was just thinking, hit a line drive, and it turned out [better],” said Gatland, who knocked in five of Western Springs’ seven runs. “It’s just great, all my teammates crowding me at the plate—it was just great.”
With the victory, the still-undefeated Western Springs team is now just one win away from the 11-year-old Illinois state title, and has two shots at it. They will first play for it on Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. in Pierce Park in the next-door Hinsdale; should they lose, they will have a second chance on Thursday.
Previously in the state tournament, the team crunched Olney in a 14-0 mercy-rule whipping, then poured on another avalanche of runs to outslug Streator, 19-9. Thomas Remijas hit a grand slam in the first game and two more multi-run homers in the second, while pitching was done by four- and five-man committees, respectively.
On Monday, Western Springs leapt out to an early 3-0 lead in the top of the first as Gatland ripped a double down the left-field line to score Remijas and Owen Waunn, then scored himself on a passed ball in a tight play at the plate. Eric Steensma singled in Gatland in the third to open it to 4-0.
The resilient JRW team—who Western Springs might yet see again in the finals—struck back in the bottom of the third to close it to 4-2. But with two outs and the bases empty in the fourth, Waunn singled and Remijas ground out a walk to set the stage for Gatland’s blast.
JRW didn’t go away, the bottom of their order taking advantage of several tough bounces through the right side of the infield to close the game to 7-5. Shut out in the top of the fifth and sixth innings, Western Springs saved the game with a series of defensive heroics in the bottom of the sixth, including a stunning grab at the fence by left-fielder Graham Sands to rob JRW of damaging extra bases.
“We’ve seen Graham make catches like that all year,” said manager Bob Waunn. “He’s a tall kid, and he used every inch of his frame to make that catch.”
Gatland pitched two innings with two earned runs; Nolan Niego took over in the third and threw for one and two-thirds, also with two earned runs. Steensma threw the final two and a third innings scoreless, including drawing a pop-out to end the fourth with the tying run on first. Western Springs pitchers were demonstrably more controlled than their JRW counterparts, who gave up several walks, wild pitches and passed balls.
“We did it with solid pitching to start, great defense and then timely hitting,” Waunn said. “We believed this team was talented enough to do this, so it’s not a complete surprise, but every step of this, they just keep improving and getting better and show that they belong in the spot they’re in.”
The team advanced to the state tournament with undefeated runs in and qualifying.
The Western Springs 11-year-old District team is Daniel Feldmeier, Dominic Fera, Andrew Gatland, Jack Hammond, Sam Hojnar, Nolan Niego, Nick Panos, Thomas Remijas, Stone Saloum, Graham Sands, Eric Steensma and Owen Waunn, with manager Bob Waunn and coaches Dean Panos and Jon Remijas.