Salt Fork head to Class 1A state
CHAMPAIGN — The Storm hit early on Monday at Illinois Field.
Anyone who missed the first five batters in the Class 1A baseball super-sectional missed all of the game’s offense as Salt Fork topped Galva-Williamsfield 2-0.
The win advances the Storm (22-7) into a 10 a.m. Friday state semifinal game against Granville Putnam County at Peoria’s O’Brien Field.
For Salt Fork, the season is concluding much better than it began.
“Five games into the season, we were nowhere,” 30th-year Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen said. “We’d lost our pitching ... what a story these guys have written.”
A youthful program with no seniors on its roster rebounded to capture a share of the Vermilion Valley Conference championship and has shut out three of five postseason opponents.
Hansgen said it wasn’t all gloom-and-doom after first Max Stutsman and then Ross Learnard were unable to continue pitching. Stutsman worked 31/3 innings in the opener and nothing more. Learnard has made three appearances on the mound, but none in more than a month, although he did warm up in the bullpen prior to Monday’s seventh inning.
“When we lost those two arms, we were in a world of hurt,” Hansgen said while fighting back tears. “We had high expectations because most of the juniors were starters as sophomores.”
Stutsman (third base) and Learnard (center field) remained in the lineup and brothers Cole and Connor Taylor became the go-to pitchers as the all-sports co-op featuring athletes from Catlin and Jamaica secured the first state berth in baseball for either of the districts.
“We didn’t know what to expect, and had a rough start,” said Stutsman, recalling the team’s early 3-5 record, “but we’ve been on the Taylor brothers’ backs. I’ve never seen Cole pitch a better game (than in the super-sectional).”
A junior, Cole Taylor stymied Galva-Williamsfield on five hits. He walked no one and struck out five, including Collin Landis with the tying runners on base for the game-ending out in the bottom of the seventh.
“I knew (the pitch) was a strike,” Taylor said. “I was hoping I got it where he wouldn’t hit it.”
Even with the early injuries and setbacks, Taylor said the squad of six juniors, six freshmen and one sophomore wasn’t discouraged.
“I knew we had it in us,” he said.
The Storm had it from the start of the super-sectional game. Leadoff batter Noah Darr singled on the game’s third pitch and advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw. The second batter, freshman Connor Taylor, stroked an opposite-field single to right, driving in Darr with the lone run that Cole Taylor would require.
For good measure, Cole Sanford’s two-out single knocked in Connor Taylor. Salt Fork had four of its six hits against James Doubet in the first.
“It was a very well-pitched game both ways,” Galva coach Charlie Sams said. “Great pitching, and great defense. We hit balls as good as they did, but they made every play.
“This postseason we’ve said we wanted a team to have to play well to take us out, and they played very well.”
Cole Taylor’s pitching is what Hansgen has come to expect from the right-hander.
“Cole plugs along and doesn’t show any emotion,” Hansgen said. “He always gives us a chance to win.
“The Final Four is a player’s dream, a coach’s dream. It’s just awesome.”
Darr said his coach had a simple pregame message.
“All he said was ‘one gets you two,’ ” Darr said, referring to the victory that guarantees the Storm of two games this weekend in the 1A state finals.
It’s gratifying, Darr added, because “no one expected us to go this far this year.
The talk was about next year. There was no pressure at all.”
From Darr’s view behind the plate — as the catcher — he understands why Cole Taylor has emerged as such an effective pitcher.
“It’s an easy, smooth motion,” he said. “It’s slow starting the motion, then the fastball bursts in on you.”
Darr had two hits, as did Learnard. They were the only players with more than one hit in the super-sectional.
Hansgen said he was blessed to have more than the two projected preseason pitching aces.
“You wonder, ‘Where do we go from here?’ and early we were able to scrape by,” Hansgen said. “Connor stepped in, Jordyn Eakle stepped in, Josh Kimbro stepped in and Connor comes flying out of the pack. He has a Jim Palmer motion, slow and fluid, and doesn’t overpower you, but has only given up two runs in almost 50 innings.”
Connor Taylor, Eakle and Kimbro are freshmen as were two of the outfielders in Monday’s game: Colton Baird in right and Connor Taylor in left.
“Young guys everywhere,” Hansgen said, “but they don’t have any fear.”
Salt Fork also played error-free defense. Its super-sectional triumph came in its third game in five years at that level.
“I watched my brother (Joel) and (cousin) J.D. play and finally I have something Joel never did,” Learnard said.
Friday’s winner will play in Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. championship game.
A look at Class 1A state baseball, which begins Friday at Peoria’s O’Brien Field:
Putnam County vs. Salt Fork, 10 a.m.
Wolf Lake Shawnee vs. TBA, noon