When a sophomore makes Chaminade’s opening day varsity baseball roster it is no small thing. Coach Mike Pienkos estimated fewer than 10 have done it in his 39 seasons. This year the Flyers had a pair of them: Matt Brandt and Mike Sweeney.
And in the end their presence for the Flyers turned out to be a very big thing.
Brandt turned in his best pitching performance of the season with 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball and Sweeney stroked a three-run triple in a four-run fourth inning as Chaminade beat Kellenberg, 4-1, Thursday in Game 2 of the CHSAA Championship Series for a sweep and the program’s 19th title.
"It is unusual that two sophomores would play such big roles for us, but there was nothing usual about this season," Pienkos said. "We had no season last year because of the pandemic. I didn’t know very much about this group when the season started, but I could see there was something to love about them."
And Chaminade (14-4) stumbled out of the gate by starting 3-3. But in winning 10 of the last 11, it was clearly the team playing the best baseball in the end.
"We might have used 15 different lineups this season figuring it out," Pienkos said. "Our pitching got better every week. Our defense got better every week. And while we never became a great hitting team, this group was special in that it always did what was required to win."
"We pitched and we played defense and those are the cornerstones of championship teams," said senior first baseman Tyler Burke, who went 2-for-3 with an RBI and made a sensational diving stop on the foul line to turn a certain extra-base hit into an out. "Even at 3-3, we thought we were good enough to be there at the end."
The end on Thursday was precarious. Closer Andrew Heiderstadt came on with the score 4-1 and got the final out of the Kellenberg sixth with runners at the corners. In the seventh the Firebirds (13-5) brought the tying run to the plate three times and the righthander retired all three for the save.
Phil Schurr had a run-scoring single in the first to give Kellenberg its first lead of the series.
Identifying a turning point in the Flyers’ season is tough.
It could have been the day when, with all the needed clearances checked off to bring a sophomore onto the varsity, Sweeney and Brandt were summoned from the JV practice to the varsity practice. "It was an exciting moment for us, but from that moment we were all-in," Brandt said.
It might have been the May 12 win at St. Dominic when the then-meager hitting Flyers broke out for 10 runs behind a Brian Heckelman grand slam and home runs by Brady Steinert and Anthony Lods.
Sweeney, the postseason MVP, said "that was when we knew we’d end up here." Added Pienkos "that’s when they became enthusiastic about what they could be."
Or it could have been in the final week of the regular season when they won two of three from the Firebirds and nearly swiped the top seeding. "That was when I thought we were the best team," Pienkos said.
A walk, a hit-by-pitch and a bunt single set the table for Sweeney’s big hit. The ball fell in front of a diving CJ Picone and went to the wall for the triple. He scored on Burke’s single.
"It’s an electric group of guys," Burke said. "I wish I could come back for one more season with them."