St Rita sectional 2019

Behind a strong performance from starter Diego Koval, St. Rita defeated Nazareth Academy to win its first sectional title since 2014. (Review photo)

By St. Rita baseball standards, the 2018 season was a disappointment.

The Mustangs finished 21-17, but Coach John Nee and his staff believed they had something special with this year’s group—even if nobody outside the campus believed in the Mustangs.

St. Rita continued to make believers out of its doubters as its memorable season continued with a 7-0 triumph over Nazareth Academy on June 1 in a Class 4A sectional championship game at Ozinga Field in Crestwood.

The sectional championship is the first for the Mustangs (33-6) since 2014 when St. Rita finished second in the Class 4A state tournament.

“We had a chip on our shoulder because some people overlooked us because we lost a few more games than we’re accustomed to last year,” said Nee. “It started in the weight room in December, and we’ve seen a great camaraderie with this group. They are loose and have fun. They drive me crazy sometimes, but it’s a fun group to be around.”

St. Rita advanced to play Fremd in the Schaumburg Boomer Stadium supersectional on June 3, after press time, with a state semifinal berth up for grabs.

The Mustangs’ depth all over the field proved to be the difference in the win over the Roadrunners (29-9), especially senior starter Diego Koval.

The Loras College recruit allowed all 5 of his hits in the first 3 frames of a 6-inning performance. He was at his best in pressure situations.

With 1 out and runners at second and third in the first, Koval fanned clean-up hitter Andrew McKenna before inducing a grounder to third to escape unscathed.

“I always trust my defense. They always have my back. Once we got out of the first inning, I knew we’d score some runs,” said Koval. “The change-up was my go-to pitch today. I didn’t really have a curve ball, but the change-up and fastball were there for me. I love being the underdog. It’s great to prove everyone wrong.”

Nee had high praise for his ace.

“Nobody is going to come out here and be impressed by anything on the radar gun, but for those of us who have watched for two years, he’s a big-game pitcher,” said Nee. “We’ve had some unbelievable pitchers come through here in my 22 years, guys who have pitched in the big leagues. I don’t know if there’s a guy I’d rather have on the mound than Diego.”

The Mustangs offense scored single tallies in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings to gradually take control. Senior Gavin Mottl plated the runs in the first and fifth with opposite-field singles to left.

“I was trying to stay up the middle. Both of my hits were with 1 out, so I was just trying to put the ball in play, move someone into scoring position or get someone in. We try to have as many gritty at-bats as we can and chip away at the pitcher,” said Mottl. “I don’t think I’ve been happier than this in a while. I’m so excited that I get to keep playing baseball and keep my career going.”

Junior catcher Luke Napleton and sophomore designated hitter Bobby Atkinson plated the runs in the third and fourth with sacrifice flies. Senior shortstop Jalen Greer tripled to lead off the third and scored on Napleton’s fly ball to center. Chris McDevitt scored on Atkinson’s sacrifice fly after leading off the fourth with a double and advancing to third on an errant pickoff throw.

Greer, a University of Missouri commit, provided the exclamation point with a towering 2-run homer to center in the bottom of the sixth.

“It was a 0-1 count, and I thought it would be an off-speed pitch. But it was a fastball; we don’t miss fastballs. It’s a big park, but I knew it was going out. It felt good,” said Greer. “People slept on us in the beginning of the year, but we’ve beat a lot of good teams and have proven a lot of people wrong.”

St. Rita senior Matt Callahan made a series of dazzling defensive plays in center. He threw a runner out at home for the third out of the second inning and added a running catch with his back to the infield in deep center in the seventh.