CHAMPAIGN – Even as the tears welled in his eyes after a 9-5 loss to North Fulton in a Class 1A super-sectional, Salt Fork's J.D. Learnard was able to find some perspective.
"We kind of surprised a lot of people and that's what I like to take from it," the Storm's ace pitcher and second baseman said at Illinois Field on Monday night. "We're one of the best eight teams in the state."
It's been a banner school year for Salt Fork boys' athletics. The football team reached the semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Concord Triopia. The basketball team reached the sectional final before falling to another state champion in Macon Meridian. And the baseball team, having advanced further in the state tournament than any other at Salt Fork, saw its season end just short of a state trophy.
Even still, they enjoyed the ride.
"There are kids that were a part of all three of those teams and each team talks about how we did what in each sport," senior Brandon Tuggle said. "Someone from Salt Fork has always stepped up in a big game somewhere, so we all know we can do it when the time comes."
Learnard has been that guy throughout the postseason for Salt Fork, recording a pitching decision (three wins, one save) in each of his team's first four postseason games. But by the time the senior right-hander took the mound with one out in the sixth inning, the Storm trailed 8-6.
Storm starter Joel Learnard issued five walks to North Fulton (25-4) in his two innings of work and reliever David Sacre issued six more free passes and hit another.
"That's not characteristic, but Joel's been down with some back issues and he just wasn't sharp and David seemed to get a little tired," Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen said.
"It's tough and I didn't think we did that bad pitching," J.D. Learnard said. "They put the ball in play and we knew they were going to hit, they wouldn't be here if they couldn't hit."
Salt Fork (19-7-1) got three hits from Brad Collins and two apiece from Ryan McCord, Daine Powell and Matt Bowen. Reserve Lance Hubbard went 2 for 2 and drove in three runs in front of 732 fans, most of whom were cheering for the Storm.
"It was awesome to look up there. This place seats 1,500 and our half was full," J.D. Learnard said. "That kind of reflects on the impact we have on the community and it's been great, this group of guys has been awesome with football and baseball to come out and play. We surprised a lot of people this year and I'm glad to do it with this group of guys."