Five area baseball programs earned No. 1 seeds for upcoming small-school regional tournaments. The Class 1A and 2A postseasons start Monday. Here is Fred Kroner’s look at the area’s top small-school teams:
The Bombers (18-5) are the top seeds for their own five-team Class 1A regional. The A-O headliner is junior Keegan McHood, a Kentucky recruit. McHood has six pitching wins and an ERA of 0.53. He has struck out 80 batters in 40 innings, while yielding 12 hits. He’s also the team’s top batter, hitting .442. Veteran coach Tom Saunches won his 500th game earlier this season and has a solid supporting cast, including senior Gage Eller, a .395 hitter who has a team-high six home runs. Football quarterback Eller — a Kaskaskia College recruit — has three pitching wins and has fanned 48 batters in 29 innings. Other top batters are Cameron Hupp (.423), Logan Jackson (.380) and Austin Brown (.357). Griffin Sparks has three pitching wins. Eleven of 17 squad members are seniors.
Coach Darryl Focken’s squad (15-13) is top-seeded in its own six-school Class 1A regional. The Timberwolves have relied on speed (successfully stealing 132 of 150 bases) and not power (two home runs to date). Top hitters are Wyatt Froehling (.338), Jacob Marquez (.330), Trace Nims (.327) and Dylan Reetz (.324). Josh Marquez is batting .290 and has drawn walks on more than one-third of his plate appearances (39 of 111). Josh Marquez has 27 steals, four more than teammate Devon Laubscher (also a .290 hitter), who won the Sangamon Valley Conference track and field 100-meter crown earlier this week. Ten of 17 squad members have pitched at least five innings. Laubscher leads in wins (four) and is followed by Reetz (three). Jacob Marquez has the most strikeouts (43), averaging more than one per inning.
Coach Chris Jones’ Sages (22-6) are the outright Okaw Valley Conference champions for the first time in 21 years. They are top-seeded in their own Class 2A six-team regional. Senior Matt Crook (7-1) and junior Daniel Caldwell (5-1) are two of the team’s top pitchers. Caldwell has struck out 81 batters in 41 innings and has an 0.85 ERA. Crook, a Millikin recruit who also catches, has a 1.97 ERA. Parkland College recruit Nick Stokowski broke the school record for single-season home runs last week (eight) and with 51 RBI is two from tying that all-time mark. The team’s closer, Stokowski hasn’t yielded a run this season. Pitching depth is supplied by Austin Hopper (5-2) and David Vanderkloot (5-1). Among the other leading hitters and defensive stalwarts are shortstop Ryne Bundy (.468) and second baseman Jacob Burton (.356).
The Storm (21-6) is the outright Vermilion Valley Conference titlist. Salt Fork has a 20-game winning streak and is top-seeded for a four-team Class 1A regional it will host at Jamaica’s Hansgen Field. Most starters from last year’s fourth-place state tournament team return. Ross Learnard (7-1 pitching record) and Cole Taylor (6-0) — both of whom are Parkland College recruits — provide Salt Fork with what coach Gary Hansgen calls “a pair of No. 1s who are very competitive.” There’s no shortage of pitching talent with Jordan Eakle, Josh Kimbro and Connor Taylor combining for an 8-1 record. With 12 squad members hitting .333 or better, Hansgen expects the season batting average record to fall. Among the non-pitchers who’ve hit well are Noah Darr, Garrett McFadden, Cole Sanford, Max Stutsman and Lane Weston.
The Spartans (school-record 28-2 mark) retained many starters from last year’s Elite Eight entry. SJ-O is the No. 1 seed for the six-team Hoopeston Area Class 2A regional. Even without Indiana University recruit Hunter Hart — who has been sidelined with an injury for more than a month — SJ-O has no shortage of pitchers. Brock Immke (5-0), Tyler McCormick (5-2) and Cole Berry (7-0) have shouldered the load. Immke has fanned 70 batters. McCormick hasn’t allowed an earned run, and Berry has an 0.84 ERA. Immke and McCormick are third-year varsity pitchers who are Kankakee Community College recruits. Cleanup batter Immke is batting .392 and has 12 doubles. Catcher Chase Gadau is a .475 hitter who has driven in 32 runs, shortstop Jake Stewart is a .494 hitter with 20 stolen bases and outfielder/third baseman Dalton Walsh is batting .414 in his first year back with baseball since he was a freshman. “Our goal wasn’t to go undefeated,” Spartans coach Josh Haley said, “but we wanted to mentally approach each day like it was the postseason so the postseason wouldn’t feel any different. Fortunately, it has allowed us to have a good regular season.”