Of the six previous baseball state runner-up finishes Wayne Stein has been part of, there’s one he never talks about. It stings even more than the one-run loss to Parkview as an assistant in 2009 or the 3-1 defeat to St. Thomas Aquinas in 2016 — Stein’s first appearance in the finals as a head coach.
In 2007, during the now-head coach’s lengthy stint as an assistant for St. Charles Catholic, the Comets held a one-run lead in the seventh inning against Menard before a state championship slipped through their fingers in the team’s fourth state finals appearance — the third for Stein in a Comets uniform.
But there’s a reason he brought it up himself after Tuesday afternoon’s Division II state championship game: Stein felt the same jitters in the bottom of the seventh Tuesday as he did 12 years ago, and finally his Comets came out on top, delivering St. Charles its first state baseball championship in a 7-4 victory over top-seeded University at McMurray Park.
Leading 7-2 after a six-run third inning, Stein watched with bated breath as senior starting pitcher Nick Lorio gave up his 10th hit of the game, allowing two more runs to score with two runners on, two outs and the tying run at the plate.
Stein’s team told him in a preseason team meeting they would be the ones to win it for all the team members from as far back as the 1970’s that fell painstakingly short.
“But we always talk about in our program that a goal without a plan is nothing more than a fantasy,” he said.
That preparation for the weight of Tuesday’s game came in finding other pressure-packed situations — some won, some lost — and adapting. The Comets dropped a regular-season game 6-5 to Lutcher in the first week of April after holding a three-run lead in the seventh.
“I think that made us realize how fragile winning is,” Stein said. “It’s not like football, where you can take a knee, or basketball, where you can pass it around. You have to get all 21 outs.”
It’s a lesson St. Charles learned on the right side of things, too, less than two weeks ago in coming back from a one-game hole in a three-game series against third-seeded Teurlings Catholic on the road, winning two games on May 5 — both by a single run — to clinch a berth to Sulphur.
But Stein looked on from the dugout early in Sunday’s championship while he watched his players gripe and stomp over a wider-than-normal strike zone that helped land University starter Lance Wade four strikeouts in his first five batters. It was a reaction those with a championship pedigree might not make and one he knew they would regret one day.
“I said ‘Look, we’re not going to come here and say “Hey, you know that year we could have won a state championship but the umpire’s zone was big?” ’ I said ‘We’re not doing that, so let’s quit the body language,’ ” he said. “ ‘Let’s get on top of the plate and expand our plate.’
“We’ve been a momentum team all year, and once we got rolling, it was really nothing more than a snowball effect, and you saw what we’re capable of doing.”
Very quickly, one RBI single turned into a double and then a two-run triple from the game’s Most Outstanding Player Robert Gilbert, who finished 3 for 4 with three RBIs. The Comets rattled off six hits in seven at-bats in the third, good enough for a 6-0 cushion gained through sheer grit.
For all those who had been in their shoes before and lost, but also for themselves.
“Even though I did tell them this season just to focus on 2019, I can’t tell you how many people reached out and wanted us to win this,” Stein said. “For the former guys and former players and everybody, this is for the community and the other runners-up.
“Hopefully they can feel part of this.”