Eagles will have to topple M-S in regional opener for likely shot at top-seeded Centennial.
RANTOUL — The last time the Rantoul baseball team won a regional championship, it eventually played at Lanphier Park.
The venerable Springfield stadium hosted the 1992 Class AA state finals.
Yes, 21 years have elapsed since Rantoul has hoisted postseason hardware on the baseball diamond.
If Jon Donovan’s squad can make it out of an evenly matched five-team Class 3A regional the Eagles will host at Wabash Park in less than two weeks, a sectional semifinal game at Lanphier Park awaits them.
“It’s something that these seniors have looked forward to for a long time,” Donovan said. “These seniors have been in the regional championship the last two years. They’re expecting to get to that point. We know our pitching staff is going to keep us in the game. It’s just a matter of if we can get enough offense.”
Second-seeded Rantoul (17-5) has played in two straight regional title games, albeit at the 2A level. Mahomet-Seymour has done likewise, but up in 3A.
Mahomet-Seymour and Centennial have won the most recent regional titles after both accomplished the feat in 2009, but Central (1993) and Urbana (1982) have experienced droughts similar to Rantoul.
“Every team has solid pitching staffs, and the games are going to be low-scoring,” Donovan said. “Against the good teams we’ve played up to their competition this year. The teams that may not have as much talent, we play down a little bit to their level. There are no weak teams in this regional.”
Under the four-class system baseball has used since 2008, all five schools were paired together at the regional round, along with Danville, in 2008 and 2010. With the Eagles playing the last two seasons in 2A and Danville moving to 4A this spring, it’s the first time only these five schools will vie for a regional title since four-class baseball started.
Luke Pannbacker and Kolton Vermillion, an Armstrong-Potomac transfer who will play in his first postseason game with the Eagles, anchor Rantoul’s pitching staff. Those two are the primary options Donovan could go with before opening against Mahomet-Seymour on May 23.
“It’s nice because they have different strengths on the mound,” Donovan said. “Vermillion throws 8-9 mph faster, but Luke can spot up his pitches a little better and is more efficient.”
Kyle Flessner and Chris Deaville, an all-conference selection at catcher the last two years in the Corn Belt Conference, give Donovan other quality arms to work with.
Junior Tanner McLain, a three-year starter at shortstop, has elevated his offensive game this season with a .500 average and 22 RBI out of the No. 3 spot in the Eagles’ lineup.
“This year, and through the summer, he got a lot more experience and more at-bats,” Donovan said. “He’s finally coming into his own. It was just a matter of time.”
Rantoul Regional pairings
Game 1: Urbana (5) vs. Central (4) — 4:30 p.m., McKinley Field, Champaign
Game 2: Centennial (1) vs. Game 1 winner — 4:30 p.m., Wabash Park, Rantoul
Game 3: Rantoul (2) vs. Mahomet-Seymour (3) — 6:30 p.m., Wabash Park, Rantoul
Game 4: Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner — 10 a.m., Wabash Park, Rantoul
While five area Class 3A baseball teams will descend on Rantoul, Danville gets to square off against quality 4A competition down south in the Edwardsville Regional (good luck, Vikings). Small-school postseason play starts next week. Staff writer MATT DANIELS takes a glance at one 1A and one 2A regional to keep an eye on:
Class 2A Paxton-Buckley-Loda Regional
St. Joseph-Ogden, with ace pitcher Hunter Hart, is the top seed in the five-team field. Second-seeded St. Thomas More, led by Storm Joop, likely would have found itself the top seed if the Sabers were in another regional. PBL, the third seed, is always a team to reckon with, especially if freshman Jonny Walder keeps playing like an upperclassman.
Class 1A Fisher Regional
The host Bunnies are the top seeds. Doesn’t mean Jon Kelly’s team — led by Luke Harvey, Brad Pettenger and a host of others — is guaranteed to bring home a title. But if Fisher does, it will be one of historic proportions because the school has never won any postseason plaques in baseball. LeRoy, the second seed, topped the Bunnies in a one-run regional championship game last year in LeRoy. Can Fisher reverse its fortunes? We’ll find out.