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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Neuqua’s dominance continues against Plainfield East


Three batters into his start against Plainfield East, you could certainly excuse Neuqua Valley left-hander James Kulak for feeling a little déjà vu.

Just like it did a year ago against Kulak, Plainfield East’s first three batters had reached safely.

Neuqua Valley left-hander James Kulak delivers a pitch against Plainfield East on May 31, 2017.

You might believe a two-run deficit three batters into the first semifinal of the Class 4A Oswego Sectional might have had Kulak rattled a little bit.

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But then you don’t know Kulak that well.

In six innings on Wednesday, Kulak permitted the 12th-seeded Bengals to just those two runs as top-seeded Neuqua Valley cruised to a 12-2, six-inning victory.

“I wasn’t really nervous,” he said. “I know our team can produce runs. As long as I knew I went out there and pitched better innings than what I did the first inning, I think we could win.”

The Wildcats’ four-run response in the first – highlighted by junior Trevor Tesmond’s two-run triple – put any of Kulak’s nerves to rest.

All told, five Wildcats had at least two hits with junior right fielder Jack Rigoni’s 4-for-4 with two doubles leading things.

Rigoni’s error on Jacob Knoebel’s RBI single in the first allowed a second run to cross home plate as the Wildcats were handed a 2-0 deficit.

But he was keenly aware of how he could atone.

[shareprints gallery_id=”74357″ 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”]“Defense – sometimes you make errors. It’s just human nature,” Rigoni said. “I think I came in and I was confident in the box. I rebounded from that mistake in the first inning and I think whenever you do bad on one side, you got to make it up on the other.”

A 10th straight victory in hand, Neuqua Valley (34-1-1) now owns the second-most victories in program history as it sits a victory shy of a fifth sectional title.

Third-seeded Plainfield North (28-9) – which eliminated Neuqua Valley in a sectional final last year – awaits Robin Renner’s team on Saturday.

Back on April 28 against the Tigers, the Wildcats used an eight-run seventh to turn an one-run deficit into a 12-5 victory.

Butler-bound shortstop James Gargano certainly hasn’t forgotten the 11-3 drubbing the Tigers handed down last year.

“We’re pretty evenly matched, to be honest. Just last year, playing them in the sectional, they got us,” said Gargano, who went 2-for-3 with a solo homer and scored three runs on Wednesday. “They got us pretty good. So a little redemption would be nice.”

Now afforded that opportunity to try and enact some revenge on Plainfield North, Neuqua Valley has Kulak (9-1) to thank for it.

Kulak struck out seven over the course of his six innings to run his career postseason record to 4-0 to go with a 0.94 ERA in 22 1/3 innings.

Those 22 1/3 innings have only seen him permit three earned runs and two of the four victories have been shutouts.

“I think the postseason – I’m just more focused than during the regular season,” Kulak said. “I think I just kind of realize the importance of the game and try to rise to the occasion.”

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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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