WOODSTOCK — Gordon Tech sophomore Julian Gonzalez was having a rough day as he stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday.
That all changed with one swing.
With the winning run on third base against Vernon Hills in a Class 3A baseball Marian Central Sectional semifinal, Gonzalez ripped a lined shot to deep center off of Cougars senior lefty Pat Crowley on a 2-1 count.
Vernon Hills center fielder Matt Paszko sprinted to his left in pursuit of the ball, reached out with his left hand in desperation and appeared to make a spectacular catch as he neared the warning track. The ball sat in the upper webbing of his mitt for a half-second or so, but as Paszko lost his balance and tumbled, it slipped out and fell to the ground, ending the Cougars’ season in a 9-8 defeat.
Gonzalez, who was 0-for-3 with a walk in four previous at-bats — and got an early hook as the Rams' starter on the mound after allowing five runs over three innings — described the sense of redemption he felt being a walk-off hero in the biggest game of his team's season.
"Joy," Gonzalez said. "Being able to win a game coming in as an underdog team ... it's a lot of joy. To be in this position, this moment with my teammates, it's just great. I think a lot of times some suburban teams don't think us city teams can play good baseball, but games like this show we can."
Leading 8-5 headed into the bottom of the seventh, Crowley retired two of the first three Rams hitters he faced, only to see Gordon Tech's final five batters reach base safely via walks or base hits. That included a season-saving two-RBI single with two outs by sophomore Graysen Sanchez in the at-bat prior to Gonzalez's heroics.
Sanchez was also 0-for-3 until his final at-bat in the seventh.
"I was a little nervous in my last at-bat, I'll admit," Sanchez said. "Coming up in a moment that big, knowing what was on the line. I just don't know what to say right now even. This is a rush. That's the only way I know how to describe this feeling. An incredible rush."
Also caught up in the moment was Rams coach Chris Haas, who noted this is the final year the school will play under the name Gordon Tech. It will be renamed DePaul College Prep beginning July 1, but stay at the same location.
"We only have four seniors on this team," Haas said. "Very young, resilient kids. This means a lot because this is the last year of Gordon Tech High School. A lot of kids are playing for a lot of people and representing this school well in its final year during that transition. It's a big deal for these kids. So many positive things happening at the school and on the way. This just adds to that."
Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki thanked his team, in particular his departing seniors.
"Our seniors meant a lot and did a great job all year," Czarnecki said. "I hate for it to end like this. Pat Crowley has been on varsity for four years and done so many great things ... I just wish that didn't happen. There were many different plays that could've, and did, change the course of the game. Not just one. Gordon Tech fought back. You gotta give them credit."
Vernon Hills finished with a 24-12 record. Gordon Tech (23-14), meanwhile, advances to face Grayslake Central in Saturday's sectional title game at 11 a.m. It's Gordon Tech's first-ever appearance in a Class 3A sectional final, though it reached a Class 2A sectional final in 2012, according to Haas.