Bulldogs look for another surprise

Thursday, May 29, 2003

With its 7-3 upset of Sikeston in the Class 3, District 1 championship baseball game Friday, Notre Dame knocked off the top-ranked team in the state.

The only problem with the win: They helped create another top-ranked team. And it's one they face today.

Coupled with a district departure of No. 2-ranked Carl Junction, the Bulldogs' victory left No. 3 North County as the highest-ranked team among the 16 that will play in today's sectional round.

North County (24-3), the District 2 champion, will bring a 12-game winning streak to Notre Dame for the 4 p.m. game.

Notre Dame (19-6) not only eliminated the favorite to win the state title but won for the 10th time in its last 11 games.

"I hope we win so everyone realizes that Sikeston wasn't a fluke," Notre Dame senior center fielder Dustin Tatum said. "We definitely can do it."

The Bulldogs, unranked in the last state poll, appear to be enjoying their underdog uniform, which they'll be wearing again today.

"We're in a situation again where we have nothing to lose," Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett said. "We're not supposed to win. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. That's the kind of attitude we had Friday."

"It's kind of weird because everyone seems so relaxed," Tatum said. "I figured we'd be all tense. Before the Sikeston game everyone was so relaxed. I think that's why we hit so good."

The Bulldogs have their confidence at a season high and pack the home-field advantage today.

"I think it will be a great advantage playing here," junior shortstop Lee Essner said. "Playing at home is a huge lift. Baseball, especially in postseason, puts importance on confidence. Playing at home gives you that confidence."

Notre Dame and North County will be exactly two weeks removed from a meeting on the same field, an encounter the Raiders won 5-3. It was the ninth win in the Raiders' current streak and the only blemish in Notre Dame's last 11 games.

At that time, the game was an opportunity for both teams to sharpen their games for a future playoff hurdle -- namely Sikeston. Notre Dame looked to avoid a third straight loss to Sikeston this year. North County looked to avenge a 2-1, 12-inning loss to Sikeston in last year's playoffs.

The latter matchup was highly anticipated but foiled by Notre Dame.

"I know Sikeston-North County had been built up pretty big, and we kind of spoiled that for everybody," Graviett said.

Graviett said he believes North County has to be among those surprised by the early exit by Sikeston.

"They've got to be," Graviett said. "You look at it on paper and it's a huge upset. We're hoping North County has the attitude we did them a favor."

If so, North County coach Steve Pasternak isn't letting on.

"We just knew both teams were good teams," Pasternak said. "We weren't looking at one team any more than the other. We just knew we'd be playing a pretty good competitor. We thought they might have a chance."

Notre Dame will start senior Jared Jinkerson (4-0, 1.08 ERA), who's tied for second in staff wins with Blake Urhahn (4-1) behind Essner (7-1).

"We have a lot of confidence in Jared going out there," Bulldog left fielder Matt Wulfers said. "He's been one of our top pitchers all season. We can throw the whole kitchen sink at them. We'll throw everyone if we need to."

Pasternak is mulling over his starter, or at least not wanting to show his hand. One fact that is known: He will start a good pitcher, likely either Mike Cole (9-0) or Adam Howard (7-1).

In disposing of three district opponents, three different Raider hurlers threw complete-game gems. The composite pitching line in wins over Park Hills Central, De Soto and Hillsboro were staggering: 21 innings, 11 hits, 46 strikeouts, five walks and three runs.

In the previous meeting, Notre Dame managed seven hits off Cole, who struck out 10 Bulldogs.

Notre Dame is hitting .356 as a team. Junior Blake Urhahn leads the Bulldog regulars with a .398 average, while Wulfers has belted 11 home runs, one shy of the school's single-season record. Eight batters in the lineup are hitting at least .323.

"I feel like we can win the game with three or four runs," Graviett said. "And North County has some great hitters, but as far as one to nine, I don't think they're going to hit the ball as well as Sikeston did."

Howard, who bats third and plays shortstop, displayed a dangerous bat in the previous meeting with a towering home run and a double against Urhahn. He's one of eight players in the lineup batting over .317.

"We're going to have to play a good game and carry the enthusiasm over we had last week," Graviett said. "I don't think it takes a perfect game, but we've got to play a solid one."

Today's winner will face either St. Francis Borgia (15-4) or Lutheran South (18-3) in Saturday's quarterfinals.

jbreer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 124

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