GRAYSLAKE – There hadn't been a game this spring when Marcus Sargeant hadn't hit the ball hard at least once.
In his first three at-bats in a scoreless Class 4A regional championship game, the Prairie Ridge senior first baseman had grounded out, flied out and stuck out looking. So when Sargeant stepped to the plate in the ninth inning, Wolves coach Glen Pecoraro sensed Sargeant would find a way to live up to the moment.
After seeing two fastballs and a curveball in the dirt, Sargeant drilled a game-winning solo home run that gave the Wolves a 1-0 win over top-seeded Grant, despite the Wolves managing only two hits.
But his hit, Sergeant knew, was solid.
"It was one of those where you hit it so square off the bat that you can't even feel it," Sargeant said. "You know it's going to go far."
With the win, Prairie Ridge (22-16) advances to Wednesday's McHenry Sectional semifinals, where the Wolves will face Huntley at 4 p.m. The Red Raiders advanced with a 3-2 eight-inning victory over Dundee-Crown Saturday morning in the DeKalb Regional title game.
Sargeant's home run provided the offensive spark that had been missing over the first eight innings. The Wolves went without a hit until the seventh when Austin Covers delivered a two-out infield single. Despite the lack of hits, though, Covers allowed only two Grant hits in seven innings of work before closer Jack Myers took over in the eighth.
"It's tough going out there (with a) 0-0 score, because you have to put up another zero," said Covers, who struck out nine in seven innings of work and who left Grant runners stranded at third base in both the fifth and sixth innings. "But with the defense behind me, I knew we could do it."
Prairie Ridge loaded the bases in the ninth and Dustin Thelander was up 3-0 in the count, needing only one more ball to force the go-ahead run home. Earlier in the inning, Pecoraro had called for two squeeze bunt attempts to try and push a run across the plate. But when neither worked and Thelander flew out, the Wolves were forced to rely on pitching to keep their championship hopes alive.
Myers kept the game scoreless in the eighth and then went out in the ninth with the 1-0 lead, thanks to Sargeant's home run. After quickly retiring the first two hitters he faced in the ninth, Myers walked a hitter and hit another. Suddenly, Grant had runners on second and third, threatening to tie – and possibly win – the game.
"I just thought, 'I need to hit my spots' and trust my infield behind me," Myers said. "That's what I did and it usually works out."
It worked again Saturday when Myers got Nathan Khun to ground out, delivering a dramatic regional title to a team that started the year 2-8.
"We've been fortunate to win a lot of regional titles, but this one may mean the most because we have overcome numerous challenges this year," Pecoraro said. "But these guys have stayed together and kept believing and I'm real excited and proud as (heck) of what they've accomplished."