Moments after Evan Ranneklev’s eighth-inning single Saturday cleared the infield to secure Neuqua Valley’s 33rd victory, attention shifted to working towards victory No. 34.
“I think this is great, especially since we have (James) Kulak coming to pitch,” Ranneklev said after the 5-4 victory over Minooka. “It was a great win, especially get the momentum, come with Kulak throwing 90 from the left side. I think that’s huge for us.”
With the program’s 11th regional title now in hand, the top-seeded Wildcats (33-1-1) begin work towards a fifth sectional title this week at the Class 4A Oswego Sectional.
And there’s no one they’d rather have begin that quest on the mound than Kulak, their junior left-hander.
At 8-1 with a 1.14 ERA in 55 1/3 innings, Kulak gets a second look in as many years at 12th-seeded Plainfield East (23-15).
A third career postseason victory coming his way after no-hitting Metea Valley, Kulak will look to improve on that 3-0 record and 0.85 ERA.
“You don’t know what’s going on through his mind,” Neuqua Valley coach Robin Renner said of Kulak, who’s thrown 16 1/3 career postseason innings. “He’s very quiet. He has a very controlled focus, a very quiet focus – which I love. We’ve had some colleges ask, ‘is he mentally tough?’ Absolutely, he is.
“Even as a sophomore, he pitched some of the biggest games that we played in and excelled.”
In this same spot a year ago, Kulak went four innings against the Bengals as the Wildcats used an eight-run second inning to roll to an 11-0, five-inning victory.
Kulak’s job now is to try and help these Wildcats grab that 34th victory, which would set a little history.
A victory over the Bengals snaps the tie they have with the 2008 team, which finished third in Class 4A, for the second-most in program history.
“We’ve been focused the whole year. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve played so well this year,” Kulak said. “But (Wednesday) was just another level of really being into the game.”
For Plainfield East coach Adam O’Reel, whose team won three games to claim a second regional title, memories of that game last season are still vivid.
While that eight-run second inning is at the forefront of those thoughts, he’s keenly aware of what awaits with a second shot at Kulak.
“I see a lefty that can bring it up there a little bit,” O’Reel said. “He can nibble. He can work both sides of the plate and he obviously has some very good off-speed that’s going to get hitters out front and keep them guessing. So we got to be very selective in what we’re doing.”
Plainfield East – after going a combined 0-6 in the regular season against the three other Plainfield schools – upset both Plainfield Central and Plainfield South last week.
A victory away from potentially meeting Plainfield North for a third time, the Bengals won’t be shying away from the moment.
The reasons for that have everything to do with scoring victories over Plainfield Central’s Brandon Callender and Plainfield South’s Austin Marozas last week.
“We respect Neuqua Valley and that’s the thing,” O’Reel said. “We’re going to go in and respect what they do and they deserve all that. But our conference this year I’d argue is the best in the state and the pitching that our kids have seen this year – (Konnor) Ash, (Austin) Marozas, (Brandon) Callender, (Connor) Peplow. All these arms and we see it constantly.”
Senior Logan Schmitt likely will be asked to try and tame a Neuqua Valley offense that has averaged 8.4 runs and has scored double-digit runs 16 times.
Led by junior Ryan Wheeler’s .452 clip, eight Wildcats who have had at least 77 at-bats own averages no lower than Jake Wenz’s 351.
Of those eight players, four of them – Wheeler, Noah Herdman, Ranneklev and James Gargano – are hitting over .400.
“They’re very athletic,” O’Reel said of Neuqua Valley. “They’re confident obviously. When you post a record like that, they’re going to come in there and think they can beat anybody and they should think that way because they have.”
In a season that has seen them run off a 22-game winning streak and currently sees them on a nine-game run, pressure hasn’t visited the Wildcats much.
But overcoming a season-high four run deficit in the extra-inning victory over Minooka taught them a valuable lesson.
For Gargano, their Butler-bound shortstop, that became crystal clear the moment the mob of Wildcats met Wheeler at home plate following Ranneklev’s single.
“You have to have these things in the playoffs,” Gargano said. “You have to have a crazy road to the playoffs if you want to keep advancing. Stuff has got to be on your side – like little things, the dropped ball. I feel bad to see things like that happen, but it worked out in our favor. Evan came up, clutch hit. Things like that have to happen in order to win.”