CHAMPAIGN — Josh Haley made sure his St. Joseph-Ogden baseball team was informed of crucial dates this season.
The final one the Spartans coach had in mind were for this upcoming Friday and Saturday.
The state tournament. O’Brien Field. Downtown Peoria.
“Once the basketball players got back (in mid-March), we went over our goals, and we felt like we had a team that could get there,” Haley said after seeing the Spartans’ boys’ basketball team place fourth in Class 2A. “We presented it to them. Once you see it in front of you and see that it’s attainable, then you can start working towards it. It was neat to kind of check off the dates as we went.”
The last two, however, will have to stay unchecked.
Pleasant Plains made the Spartans’ stay at Illinois Field on Monday anything but pleasant after the Cardinals rolled to a 10-2 win during a 2A super-sectional game in Champaign.
“We’ve had a good season this year, bringing back the first sectional championship in school history, but right now, this burns,” SJ-O senior Louis Acklin said. “We wanted to get to Peoria for the first time. We were right there. We were a game away.”
The quest for SJ-O (26-8) to field its first baseball team at the state tournament will have to wait. Which is what most players, coaches, fans and umpires did Monday afternoon and into the evening. Pleasant Plains could rest more relaxed by the time both teams retreated to their dugout in the top of the sixth inning to wait out a 2 hour, 35 minute weather delay. The Cardinals (27-9) had already built up a 10-1 lead. Against SJ-O ace Hunter Hart and reliever Brock Immke, two junior right-handers who played a key part in letting the Spartans have the season they did.
“Baseball is a crazy game,” Acklin said. “Stuff happens. I didn’t expect them to come out here and shell Hunter by any means.”
They did, though, much to the chagrin of a large contingent of SJ-O supporters who filled up more than half of Illinois Field’s bleachers and stretched well down the right-field line before rain and thunderstorms struck.
The throng of maroon and columbia blue — SJ-O’s school colors — wasn’t lost on Haley and his players, even after the disappointing outcome.
“There’s a tremendous support and atmosphere around all our athletic programs,” Haley said. “It’s like this in the fall. It’s like this in the winter. And it’s like this in the spring. I can’t thank those fans enough.”
The Spartans had a superb start.
Jake Stewart led off with a triple to the left-center field wall. Three pitches later, Aaron Woller singled up the middle to give SJ-O a 1-0 lead before an out was recorded.
“We got the crowd going,” Haley said. “I thought we were going to live off that momentum.”
That, however, is where the highlights ended for the Spartans.
Pleasant Plains pounced on Hart, SJ-O’s ace, with five runs in the first inning and four more in the second to take a convincing 9-1 lead after the second inning.
Hart, who was coming off a 16-strikeout effort in the Spartans’ sectional semifinal win Thursday and on three days’ rest, did not make it out of the second inning.
“He left some balls up and they had some big two-out hits,” Haley said. “You want to get beat with your best on the hill, and we did.”
Dylan Bee did the damage for Pleasant Plains in the first inning with a three-run double that cleared the bases. Taylor Staff supplied the key hit in the second inning for the Cardinals with a two-run triple that increased Pleasant Plains’ lead to 8-1 and chased Hart from the mound, whose fastball was clocked at 91 mph in the first inning.
“We knew the Hart kid was a heavy thrower, and we really, really teed off,” Pleasant Plains coach Dave Greer said. “It takes the wind out of anybody’s sails when you’ve got your ace on the mound, and he’s a very, very good pitcher. It was just one of those days where we hit the heck out of the ball.”
Woller and Stewart both finished 2 for 4 while Seth Griswell drove in a run with a sixth-inning sacrifice fly after the delay ended.
Woller, Acklin and catcher Bryce Stewart are the three seniors who started Monday. Haley will also lose Josh Poulter (who scored the run on Griswell’s sacrifice fly) and Wyatt Dillman.
“We came together as a team, and first it seemed a little rocky, but we did some things to make this family tight,” Bryce Stewart said. “Being able to get as far as we did and ... coming here to play is something huge that will stick with all of us forever.”
So will the sight of seeing another team celebrate such a big win like Pleasant Plains did Monday. At least Acklin hopes so for the returning starters like Hart, Jake Stewart, Tyler McCormick, Chase Gadau, Immke, Jordan Buhs and Brandon Sparks.
“This is valuable experience for them going into next year,” Acklin said. “They’ll remember Pleasant Plains lifting up the super-sectional plaque and knowing they’re going to Peoria this weekend to get a trophy. That image of them cheering and us watching will hopefully be used as motivation next year.”