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Prep baseball: Hilltoppers beat Niles Notre Dame, claim conference title

JOLIET – Sometimes a great defensive play can wake up an offense.

That certainly was the case Tuesday afternoon after Joliet Catholic’s Mike Gurka unleashed a cannon throw from right field to cut down a Niles Notre Dame baserunner at the plate in the top of the third inning, which sparked a five-run third inning from the Hilltoppers that carried them to a 9-5 win over the Dons.

The win also sewed up a third consecutive East Suburban Catholic Conference championship for Joliet Catholic.

In the third inning, Notre Dame plated the first run of the game on an RBI single from Dylan Coleman. Coleman then moved around the bases on a Bryan Boeckner single, which landed him at third.

After a Matt Murphy strikeout, Cole Manley lofted a fly ball to right field. Gurka threw the ball on a perfect line, and Joliet Catholic catcher Nate Gehrke tagged out Coleman trying to score from third.

That play seemed to spark the Hilltopper offense, which had been somewhat stagnant to that point. The Hilltoppers loaded the bases in the first inning with a double and two walks but couldn’t push any runs across. But the JCA attack immediately made its presence felt in the third when Christian Knapczyk belted a pitch over the fence to tie the game at 1.

“I’m obviously not a power hitter,” Knapczyk said. “But I felt the energy in the dugout after the play at the plate and figured why not try to get a little something started.”

It turned out Knapczyk’s homer lit the fuse on a powder keg. JCA switched gears and made the Dons’ defense go to work by placing some bunts. Although one of them didn’t work when they were called for runner’s interference, most of the rest of their attempts led to some shaky plays by the Notre Dame defense, which made seven errors in the game.

In the end, JCA had scored five runs on three hits after the Knapczyk homer. Tony Fleischauer tacked on a single, and Nick Iannantone got an infield hit.

“We ran the bases well, and even though they didn’t make all the plays defensively, I thought some of those balls were hit really, really hard,” Joliet Catholic coach Jared Voss said.

There was more offense in the fourth with both Fleischauer (double) and Iannantone (RBI single) delivering again to help stretch the lead to 8-1.

To their credit, the Dons kept charging as they actually outhit JCA, 13-7, in the contest, but the Hilltoppers’ pitching staff did an excellent job of not allowing any innings to get out of control.

Zak Gould worked the first five innings, dancing in and out of potential trouble, while Gurka and Greg Ziegler finished the game with an inning of work each.