NEW LENOX – With an IHSA record crowd of 3,947 in attendance and thousands more watching on the IHSA Network, Providence Catholic closer Matt Trzesnewski looked into senior catcher Jim Jeffries for the sign.
Leading Mundelein, 10-3, in the bottom of the seventh inning of last season’s Class 4A state championship game, the Celtics needed one more out to create history. When Mundelein’s Ryan Fairweather hit a liner at shortstop Jackson Stulas, the Celtics completed their third consecutive Class 4A state championship.
In the 77-year history of the IHSA state baseball tournament, no school had ever won more than two state titles in succession.
“In October, we were finally able to take a family vacation, to Disneyland, of course,” Providence coach Mark Smith said during a recent practice. “I was watching the Cubs-Indians Game 7, and when Rajai Davis hit the game-tying home run, for the first time it really hit me what my boys accomplished. I realized how difficult it is to close out an elimination game. Twenty-one consecutive times, over three years, we won elimination games. I have been so blessed to have been able to coach such an unbelievable group of winners. I will never forget them.”
Stulas, Jeffries and Trzesnewski, – as well as Mike Madej, Zach Pych, Jackson Dvorak, Connor Creed, Matt Waznis, Kevin Fitzgerald, Tom Kelly, Connor Hilty and Noah O’Brien – have moved on to college. Class 4A state championship game-winning left-handed pitcher Tyler Zarembka (7-2, 1.60 ERA) and senior right-hander Kurt Dankovich (4-0, 2.76 ERA) return. Zarembka will be lost until May, however, because of an offseason injury.
After the heavy graduation losses suffered by the history-making Celtics, there is open competition for most starting positions. Dankovich looks to hold down the No. 1 spot on Smith’s pitching staff.
“I want to be the leader for our staff and do everything I can do to help our talented young pitchers,” Dankovich said. “The key to our success the last three seasons has been the family tradition we have here at Providence. We have to continue that tradition with this new group of Celtics. If we can accomplish that, we believe we can achieve anything.”
Senior Drew Hunniford, who hit .381 with 11 RBIs, will lead Smith’s offense.
“I could not have been happier with my junior season, resulting in a good year at the plate and culminating with the historic state championship,” Hunniford said. “I have worked really hard in the offseason with hopes of having even a better season at the plate in 2017.
“We can’t wait for our home opener March 20 with Joliet Central. It will be great to open up at home, finally. Anything is possible is the feeling we have here at Providence.”
Junior first baseman Matt Swanson looks to provide much-needed pop in Smith’s lineup.
“Once again, the family we have established here at Providence is of the utmost importance,” Swanson said. “I hope to have a big year at the plate and provide us with solid defense at first base.”
The Zarembka injury was tough, as he was receiving numerous college offers after his outstanding junior season.
“I’m OK with the injury,” Zarembka said. “I’m confident I can get back and pitch this season. We have a number of quality young arms this season. With the pitch-count rule in effect, it is important for us to have an abundance of quality arms. Our lineup 1 through 10 is strong and will score runs. I’m confident we will have a successful season.”
With the historic three-peat in the rearview mirror, the new-look Celtics look to create new memories for Smith.
“We are very young, but I am confident by May we will be pretty good,” Smith said. “We might struggle early trying to find ourselves, but we want to be playing our best ball by state tournament time.
“Maybe we can surprise some people in the tournament. Our conference (Chicago Catholic Blue) is as strong as ever, and our overall strong schedule will prepare us to be playing our best baseball in June.”