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Seems like ‘yesterday

LISLE — For four members of St. Bede’s only state baseball championship, it was like stepping back in a time machine Tuesday night at Benedictine University.

They gathered to watch this year’s Bruins take the next step in chasing their dreams to join them in the elite state championship club.

And Tom McGunnigal, Jim Perona, Brad Koster and Michael Schneider, all members of that great Bruins baseball team of 1988, couldn’t have been happier.

“It’d be cool to watch my old high school make state playing where I played at college,” Koster said, noting the Benedictine campus.

When asked if it seems like 27 years ago for his St. Bede squad, the old Bruin pitcher joked, “Only when I try to throw. Those memories are just like it was yesterday. You can almost remember all the individual plays. Memories you never forget.”

St. Bede coach Bill Booker, who took two rival L-P teams to state, had McGunnigal, now the SBA athletic director, make an impromptu pep talk to the Bruins after Thursday’s practice. He related his experience and talked about the brotherhood of Bruins baseball.

“It really brings back some tremendous memories – so much that I tear up thinking about all of them,” McGunnigal said. “I told the boys that I was playing with my best friends. And we would have been best friends no matter what would have come of our baseball season, but it gives us something now that we ALWAYS talk about whenever we get together.

“Like Jim and I recounting stories all the way to Lisle. But I told the boys I always, always, always, remember John’s (former coach Bellino) last words to us before we broke on that last practice, ‘I’m not going down there to lose.’ Of course, we had to win the first to keep playing at that time, but that motivated me to get it done for ourselves.”

State champs

Things were different in 1988. There were just two classes, compared to the current four-class system instituted in 2007. Eight teams advanced to state in each class (four now) from sectional sights with no super-sectionals played.

St. Bede punched its ticket to state from the friendly confines of Henry-Senachwine High School, nothing glamorous compared to the settings of Benedictine University. They beat old Peoria Bergan 2-1 for the sectional championship and Lanark Eastland in the semifinals.

On to Springfield for the state tournament at Lanphier Park, again not quite the glamour as Dozer Park in Peoria, the home of the Class A Peoria Chiefs, where the current crop of Bruins are experiencing this weekend.

Perona remembers being in awe of the whole state experience initially, fighting off a lot of pre-game jitters.

“My first at-bat I saw my name on the scoreboard, and I missed the sign,” he said with a laugh. “The good news was a I got a hit, and we just moved on.”

While Bernie Moore, then the athletic director, was confident in the Bruins, noting at the pre-tournament awards banquet that Koster needed only two victories to break the school record and said, “I think he’s going to do it,” not everyone was.

Perona noted how the Bruins arrived in Springfield as a big underdog against mighty Mahomet-Seymour, at least according to a pregame article written by an area newspaper (not the BCR). Perona said that prognostication fueled the Bruins’ fire more.

In Kost we Trust

What put them over the edge was the pitching performance of Koster, who shut out Mahomet 10-0 on one hit in six innings. Perona, who was named to the all-tournament team at state, said that helped put the Bruins over the top.

“You think you’re really good, but you don’t know until the first game if you belong or not. For me Brad,” he said, speaking to his old teammate, “It was you pitching so well in that first game, pitching that one-hitter. We went from do we belong here, to we were the best team here. We had this real chance.

“You see some of the other teams with these gaudy records and you win the first game 10-0, you feel can beat anybody. Your performance in that first game was just very dominating and made everybody feel like a different world.”

McGunnigal said he always felt that way with “Kost” on the mound.

“I felt comfortable on the field, and when he was going on that first day, it was no different,” McGunnigal said. “He was just mowing them down, and we just got more and more confident. I remember it so vividly today.”

The old Bruin teammates recall the only hit for Mahomet was an infield hit to McGunnigal, a nifty defensive first baseman, bringing back an old debate if Koster was just slow covering the base.

Koster’s performance would become a common theme for the state tournament with Koster playing out the hero role mightily. He earned a save in the 8-6 state semifinal win over Waterloo and later came back to pick up the 6-3 win over Alton Marquette for the state championship.

The St. Bede senor southpaw was named as the state tournament MVP for his efforts, pitching 14 of the 21 innings with two wins and a save.

“Brad’s a very humble guy,” Perona said, before turning back to his old teammate and adding, “I remember building off what you were doing and how you controlled the at-bats as a pitcher.”

While he got the MVP award, Koster said the unsung hero for the Bruins was junior pitcher Mike DeAngelo, who came in relief in the semifinal game for Schneider against Waterloo and got the win.

The memories are just as good as they were in 1988, and after 27 years, the stories only get better. The 1988 Bruins are hopeful this year’s team could make similar memories in Peoria this weekend.

• Visit and follow sports editor Kevin Hieronymus on Twitter at @bcrsportsed for updates of the Bruins at state.

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