Mark Johnson’s (Evanston, Ill./Evanston Township H.S.) two-run single in the bottom of the eighth inning capped a late rally as Valparaiso came from three runs down to defeat UIC 4-3 on Friday evening at Les Miller Field in Chicago, Ill., sending the Crusaders into the Horizon League Tournament championship game on Saturday afternoon.
Johnson, made just his sixth start of the year, doing so in place of Will Hagel (Arlington Heights, Ill./Prospect H.S.), who suffered a separated shoulder on Thursday evening. He entered the game with just one collegiate RBI, but the freshman lined a single past the shortstop with the bases loaded to plate John Loeffler (Burnsville, Minn./Burnsville H.S.) and Elliott Martin (Irvine, Calif./University H.S.) with what proved to be the winning runs.
Valpo entered the bottom of the eighth trailing 3-1 before Tanner Vavra (Menomonie, Wis./Menomonie H.S.) led off with a single. With one out, Loeffler followed with a hit and Martin loaded the bases after being hit by a pitch. Spencer Mahoney (LaGrange Park, Ill./Lyons Township H.S.) pulled Valpo within one, 3-2, with a single to left-center. Loeffler was held at third, keeping the bases loaded for Johnson’s at bat.
“It was great to see two freshmen (Mahoney and Johnson) come through in the eighth inning with those hits,” head coach Tracy Woodson said after the game. “Mark Johnson came off of the bench to fill in for Hagel and comes through with what may be the biggest hit he’ll ever have here at Valpo. I hope he has bigger ones later on though.”
Jarad Miller (Fort Wayne, Ind./Carroll H.S.) came on in the ninth and walked the leadoff man, Alex Jurich. After a sacrifice bunt, Miller got a pop up and a bouncer back to him to end the game, sending the Crusaders to the title game.
UIC (21-33) scored first with a pair of runs in the top of the fourth inning. Jon Ryan doubled with one out and moved to third on an Alex Lee single. Jurich doubled home the pair giving the Flames the early lead. Joe Betcher made it 3-0 with a single in the fifth.
Tomas Michelson retired 12 of the first 13 Crusader hitters and took a no-hitter into the fifth before Martin broke it up with a single to center to leadoff the fifth. Mahoney followed with a walk and Johnson bunted the pair up 90 feet into scoring position. Billy Cribbs (Rochester, Mich./Rochester H.S.) grounded out to short, putting Valpo on the scoreboard, making it 3-1.
Kevin Wild (Brown Deer, Wis./Brown Deer H.S.) settled down after the hit to Betcher, retiring 11 of the final 12 hitters he faced. He got the win (6-3), going eight innings, allowing the three runs on nine hits. He walked just one and struck out one.
“Wild got stronger as the game went on,” Woodson added. “His stuff wasn’t good early, but he buckled down and got the job done. It was a gutsy effort. His stuff got really good in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings.”
The Crusaders had a chance to tie the game in the seventh, loading the bases in the seventh before the Flames got out of the inning with a double play.
“I thought we had a chance to quit when (Andrew) Bain hit into the double play in the seventh, but the guys kept believing in themselves,” Woodson stated. “This team has done that all year, continuing to fight. This run we are in is unbelievable. This team doesn’t quit.”
Valpo’s offense came through in the bottom of the eighth, allowing Miller to come on for his eighth save of the season and 36th of his career, a Horizon League record.
Michelson suffered the loss (1-2), allowing four runs and six hits in 7.1 innings, exiting after Johnson’s hit. He walked four and hit three Crusader hitters.
Loeffler went 2-for-3 with a walk to pace the Valpo offense, as the Crusaders won for the 26th time in the last 30 games.
“A lot of guys, players and coaches included, came to school here to play for what we’re playing for tomorrow,” Woodson concluded. “For all the guys and all the coaches it’s been a lot of hard work and hopefully it culminates in something that we’re proud of tomorrow.”
Valparaiso (34-22) will face the winner of Saturday morning’s game between Youngstown State and UIC in Saturday afternoon’s championship. A Crusader win would send Valpo to the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time since 1968. A victory would also tie the Valpo school record with 35 victories. First pitch is slated for 4 p.m. at Les Miller Field.