PLAINFIELD – Early in the baseball season, Plainfield North coach John Darlington talked about the Tigers being passive in their at-bats.
Along the way, things changed. Coupled with strong pitching, North rebounded from a two-game deficit to win the championship in the rugged Southwest Prairie Conference and now will play in the Class 4A state semifinals, where the Tigers (27-7-1) will face Sandburg (28-6) at 5 p.m. Friday at Joliet Route 66 Stadium.
“I have no idea,” Darlington said when asked how things changed. “We have preached since the start of the season how we want to approach the game.”
Ironically, the Tigers’ closest postseason games came in the regional they hosted. They beat Waubonsie Valley, 5-3, and then in the title game, they escaped Downers Grove South, 4-3.
“We were losing to Downers Grove South, 3-2, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, and Gavin [Doyle] got a single to tie it,” Darlington said. “Then in the eighth, Cal [Cangilla] doubled and [Greg] Budig got the game-winning single.”
At the Hinsdale South Sectional, North beat rival Plainfield East, 14-4, and No. 1 seed Neuqua Valley, 11-3. In Monday’s supersectional at Standard Bank Stadium in Crestwood, the Tigers prevailed, 7-3, over Brother Rice after jumping to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning.
“Luckily, we have been having great first innings the last few games,” Darlington said. “That takes the pressure off. Cam [Kissel], Greg [Budig] and Cal [Cangilla] have gotten big hits. That’s the way baseball is. You get a group of guys who can be counted on to put the ball in play and are getting big hits, that’s huge.”
“Scoring early has been huge,” said Doyle, who is hitting .394 with 10 doubles, five triples, seven homers and
39 RBIs. “It keeps our momentum up and keeps us in the game.”
Doyle leads the Tigers in triples, homers and RBIs. Kissel is hitting a team-best .414 with 11 doubles, six homers and 29 RBIs. Budig, a catcher who leads off and is hitting .380, has a team-leading 14 doubles. Garrett Cook is hitting .357, Sean Tillmon .345.
“We have gotten pretty good defense, too,” Darlington said. “Our two middle guys [shortstop Doyle and second baseman Ryan Summers] have been very good for the most part. We have one of the best catchers in the state in Budig, and he’s only a junior. He has no passed balls and hits in the leadoff spot.”
Gavin and Summers were the key figures in vital 6-4-3 double plays in the fifth and sixth innings against Brother Rice.
Darlington said Cook, who plays right field, “plays the game as hard as anyone we have had. He’s sells out. He is a tremendous competitor.”
And then there’s Tillmon, the third baseman.
“The guy at third base was cut as a junior,” Darlington said. “It came down to a late decision this year, do we keep him or cut him? All of a sudden, he has been tremendous hitting the ball. He has had a great, great year. He had a big hit against Neuqua Valley. He’s come up with clutch hits, and he’s smooth defensively.”
The other major element, of course, is pitching, and the Tigers will go with their bona fide ace, senior right-hander Brady Miller, against Sandburg. Miller is 9-1 with a 1.47 ERA. He has struck out 62 in 57 innings.
“I’ll treat this like any other game,” said Miller, an all-area quarterback last fall and an all-area basketball player in the winter.
“Brady is just such a good athlete,” Darlington said. “He’s our No. 1 and hits in the 4-hole. Any spot we need him to play defensively when he isn’t pitching, he does it well. That just shows you how good he is.”
The Tigers also have gotten mileage out of senior left-hander Keegan Bates (3-1, 2.80 ERA), sophomore Eben Heine (4-0, 1.62), senior Nick Cerrato (3-0, 3.04), junior Nate Curtis (3-1, 2.88) and junior Harrison Pfeifer (1-1, 2.37).
Cerrato, the Tigers’ closer, was the story in the supersectional win over Brother Rice as he started and went 41/3 innings for the victory. That was the first start of his career.
“I wanted to start the senior, not the sophomore,” Darlington explained his decision.
“Cerrato was huge Monday, and Keegan [Bates] was huge in the sectional championship game,” Miller said.
“I think Nick Cerrato is one of the best in the state,” Doyle said. “He’s a Division III pitcher with a Division I arm. Keegan [Bates] is D-I caliber, too.”
Darlington is in his 12th season at North. The Tigers are averaging nearly 27 wins a season under his guidance, and they finished fourth two years ago. Miller will pitch at NCAA D-I Western Michigan, where Doyle also will play, but previous North teams boasted more highly touted pitchers. Still, this one has proved special.
“This has been our best team overall in terms of everyone contributing,” Darlington said. “With the pitch count and everything else, we have had to use guys like [Jacob] Goss and [Josh] Fleming on the mound, and they have helped us out.
“When you win 27 games, everyone has to contribute. Everyone has.”