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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Neuqua wins 11th Regional Title with walk-off single

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A season-high four-run deficit staring Neuqua Valley in the face and with Minooka smelling blood, shortstop James Gargano never hesitated.

No panic was going to set in for Neuqua Valley – not even after watching the ninth-seeded Indians jump out to a quick 4-0 lead Saturday morning.

Too much trust had been built over the course of 32 victories for the top-seeded Wildcats.

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“I pulled everybody aside right before that fourth inning and reassured everybody, ‘We’re the better team,’” the Butler-bound Gargano said. “We just got to play better, play ourselves. We’ll be fine.”

The message was received loud and clear as Neuqua Valley rallied to win the Class 4A Neuqua Valley Regional with a 5-4 victory in eight innings.

A two-out RBI single to center from junior left fielder Evan Ranneklev completed the comeback for the Wildcats, who won the program’s 11th regional title.

With an error in the infield keeping things alive in the bottom of the eighth, Ranneklev took Devin Smith’s 3-2 offering right back where it was thrown.

[shareprints gallery_id=”74018″ gallery_type=”squares” gallery_position=”pos_center” gallery_width=”width_100″ image_size=”small” image_padding=”2″ theme=”dark” image_hover=”false” lightbox_type=”slide” comments=”false” sharing=”true”]“I was just looking for anything over the plate that I could hit really hard, to square up,” Ranneklev said.

Neuqua Valley (33-1-1), winners of nine straight games, advances to face 12th-seeded Plainfield East on Wednesday.

Minooka starter Jackson Shepherd had left six Wildcat runners on base through the first three innings while the Indians pushed out to the 4-0 lead.

Neuqua’s James Gargano hits a 2-run double against Minooka on May 27, 2017.

That finally changed in the fourth with Gargano’s two-run double that got Neuqua Valley on the board and driving Shepherd from the game after 67 pitches.

Ryan Wheeler plated Gargano by sending the third pitch he saw from reliever Devin Smith over the fence for a two-run homer to tie the game at 4-4.

“I was just looking for something that I could hit and drive to the outfield,” said Wheeler, the Wildcats’ junior second baseman. “Just getting on base in that situation – having Evan, Herdy and (Jack) Rigoni behind us. We just know they’re going to knock us in.”

The 11 hits Robin Renner’s team pounded out – paced by Wheeler’s 3-for-4 day – helped them overcome stranding 11 runners on base.

Three innings of no-run relief from senior right-hander Mason LeBreck didn’t hurt matters either.

In the game to start the sixth after Justin Hicks went five and gave up the four runs on six hits, LeBreck shut the door.

LeBreck scattered three hits and struck out two in those three innings of work to pick up his seventh win of the year.

“We’ve been watching Minooka play a few days and we’ve watched them a few times,” LeBreck said. “We knew that they were a good fastball hitting team and every ball they connected well with was a fastball.

“So I knew I had to mix in my changeup and make sure it was working before I came in. I was able to use it and dominate with it.”

As the victories have piled up, Renner has acknowledged several times that he just sits back and watches them do their thing.

The team’s biggest win of the year to date certainly didn’t change that.

“We stranded a lot of runners, but a credit to our guys – they kept playing and they kept playing and they kept playing,” Renner said. “They didn’t give up and they have an unique will. It showed (Saturday).”

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Blake Baumgartner
Blake Baumgartner
Raised in Naperville, Blake Baumgartner is a 2001 Naperville Central alumnus and a 2005 graduate of Michigan State's School of Journalism. Since March 2010, he has covered football, boys' basketball and baseball for both The Naperville Sun and Positively Naperville. Follow him on Twitter @BFBaumgartner.

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