JOLIET | At 5-foot-6, Rob Cifelli is the shortest man on the Marian Catholic roster.
He stood 10 feet tall in the estimation of teammates after smacking a home run in the top of the third inning Friday against Nazareth Academy. For Cifelli, a senior, it was the first homer of his prep career.
"I thought I was in the Twilight Zone," head coach Phil Wail said.
"It came at an opportune time," Cifelli said. "I didn't think it was gone when I hit it."
That opinion was shared by most of the 1,441 spectators.
The high fly to right field by the left-handed hitter carried in the warm air and settled in the middle of the "Bud Beach," a nook of Silver Cross Field that juts about 10 feet in front of the rest of the right field wall, which is only 327 feet at the foul line.
Marian Catholic profited from the beach more than the Slammers, or their predecessor, the Jackhammers, have, from the area filled with beach chairs.
The Jackhammers put it in thinking Anheuser-Busch would pay for the sponsorship. The beer giant didn't, and the name was left on anyway.
Burned: Cifelli was red-faced when he came back to the dugout in the top of the fifth. He was picked off after an infield single to second. That was the trigger on a moderately zany half-inning.
Pat Swanson, at the plate with Nazareth's Jake Bartels picked Cifelli off, then walked, but took off when Bartels' pickoff throw directed at him sailed past Dominic Purpura and caromed off the wall. Swanson roared around second but ran out of steam heading toward third and was thrown out by right fielder Sean Maloney.
Marian right fielder Devin Pickett then proceeded to belt a triple to right field, one of three on the day by the Spartans. He was stranded there, as was Erik Callaghan in the second inning after his smash into the gap in left. The only Marian tripler to score was Pat Schmidt, who scored on pitcher Brett Lilek's sacrifice in the sixth.
A funny thing happened: The improbability of Marian Catholic's stretch run is not lost on the players. A team that went 5-11 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, splitting the season series with Nazareth, and stood 17-17 with a game to go in the regular season, is one victory away from the Spartans' first state baseball title.
"It's unreal," catcher Mitch Weissenhofer said. "It's just an amazing feeling. At the beginning of the season, we thought this was going to happen, but then things just went downhill. Then things started coming together again."
Weissenhofer knew when the tide became a tidal wave.
"As soon as we won our regional," he said. "After 26 years of no regionals, as soon as we won that, I knew things were coming together for us."
Only LaSalle Peru, a 5-2 winner over Troy Triad, stands between Marian and the Class 3A title trophy.