Storm weathers lineup changes for banner season
SIDELL — Two senior starters graduated from last year’s Salt Fork baseball program.
When the Storm makes its Class 1A state tournament debut today in Peoria, however, just three players will start in the same positions they played regularly a year ago.
Cole Sanford is still the first baseman, Max Stutsman is still the third baseman and Ross Learnard remains a fixture in center field.
Elsewhere, there has been change. Noah Darr was moved from second base to catcher, replacing the graduated David Sacre.
“From fifth grade up, I’ve been a catcher,” Darr said. “I was a little rusty at the start, but after two or three games, I got my catching legs back.”
Veteran Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen has eased the transition for his receiver by calling pitches when the opponent has the heart of its batting order at the plate.
“The lower half, he lets me call,” Darr said. “He is building me up and setting the guidelines, getting to where I can call the game instead of looking over at him.”
With Darr taken out of the infield, Lane Weston has emerged as the second baseman.
The outfielders who flank Learnard have a different look. Right fielder Adam Depratt graduated, and freshman Colton Baird stepped into that spot this spring. Baird also is being groomed as a catcher.
Two underclassmen rotated in left field a year ago, but neither remains in baseball. One of those current seniors, Clayton Fauver, switched to track and participated at state with a relay last week.
Freshman Connor Taylor plays in left field when he’s not called upon to pitch.
With the lineup switches, outsiders didn’t view this as a banner season in mid-March.
“Everyone was saying we wouldn’t make it out of regionals,” Darr said. “We’ve proved them wrong and kept going.”
The Storm (22-7) is within one win of breaking its single-season mark for victories.
Salt Fork already is playing deeper in the tournament than any team representing Catlin or Jamaica in baseball.
Darr will see his first state tournament game today. It will be the game he plays in.
“It will be a little nerve-racking, but it will be exciting,” the team’s leadoff batter said.
The pitching staff has undergone the greatest transformation. Stutsman was counted on as the ace. He pitched 31/3 innings in the opener and has been unable to return to the mound. Learnard — the team’s lone left-handed thrower — has appeared in three games as a pitcher, totaling 71/3 innings.
His last trip to the mound was more than a month ago, but the junior has been cleared to pitch again and may get the chance at state.
“I hope to, whatever Coach wants,” Learnard said. “I’ve been throwing in the bullpen, trying to get my stuff back. It’s a matter of finding that release point and getting my breaking stuff to go across the plate.
“It’s all starting to come back.”
In some ways, the Storm believes it is not as much of a Cinderella story as others make it out to be.
“The freshman class (from Catlin) won a state championship,” Learnard said. “I knew we had good talent. When freshmen (step) up like these guys have, it’s meant to be.”
And without a senior anywhere on the roster, there’s not that pressure to succeed now.
“We don’t have anything to lose,” Learnard said. “We play as hard as we can, and we persevere through anything,” Cole Taylor added, “but we don’t have to get it done this year.”
Stutsman said that feeling has helped the players remain loose.
“We’ve been pretty laid-back,” he said, “and that has carried us.”
Cole Taylor and his freshman brother, Connor, have combined to pitch 16 of Salt Fork’s 22 wins. Two other freshmen, Josh Kimbro and Jordyn Eakle, each have two pitching wins.
In addition, two other ninth-graders — Trenton Hall and Brodie Marsh — also have logged varsity innings.
Last year, Cole Taylor played full time at shortstop. It’s where he plays this year when he’s not pitching. Garrett McFadden is the shortstop when Taylor (team-high 721/3 innings) is on the mound.
Cole Taylor won’t take for granted that Salt Fork will be in this same position in 2014.
“Most people only go (to state) once,” he said. “We have to enjoy it and make the most of it.”
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Baird, Hall and Kimbro are the three freshmen from Catlin who were part of coach Darin Jarling’s IESA state championship team as eighth-graders. Kimbro’s twin sister, Jenny, was a state track runner-up in the 100-meter hurdles 12 days ago.
Baird, Eakle, Kimbro and Connor Taylor are preparing for their third summer as teammates with the St. Joseph Bandits, a travel team coached by Steve and Joe Immke.
That connection helped the spectator attendance at Monday’s super-sectional game at Illinois Field. The second game of the super-sectional twin bill featured St. Joseph-Ogden’s high school team.
“As soon as I knew St. Joe was playing after us, I knew we’d have a lot of their fans,” Stutsman said, “and our whole town seemed to be there.”
Stutsman believes it was important to play in that type of spirited environment before reaching the state semifinals.
“That was our first game playing in front of full stands,” he said. “To have been in that atmosphere will help us.”
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Learnard plays for the Decatur Commodores in the summer.
“Over half our team plays competitive travel ball,” Stutsman said. “We get at-bats off quality pitching, but we’ve done a lot of hard work during the season. We’ve spent a lot of time in the cages.”
Regardless of whether they are teammates in the summer, Cole Taylor said the important part is to be playing the game.
“The summer benefits us a lot,” Taylor said. “Some of us are on different teams and it’s cool when we play each other to see how everyone is doing.”
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Hansgen has four second-generation players on his roster.
In the early- to mid-1980s, when Jamaica High School fielded its own team, Hansgen coached Tom Baird, Barry Eakle and Ron Taylor. Their children — Colton Baird, Jordyn Eakle, Cole Taylor and Connor Taylor — are now part of the current Salt Fork squad.
Hansgen retired two years ago as a teacher at Jamaica but continues to coach and is completing his 31st season. His replacement in the classroom, Ryan High, is his assistant on the baseball diamond.
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Stutsman is the only Salt Fork baseball player to have participated in a state tournament event while in high school.
As a sophomore in 2012, he tied for first in the Class 2A three-point shooting contest and wound up in second place following a shoot-off.
He will share with his current teammates one key to success at that level.
“With a lot of people cheering,” he said, “you have to stay calm.”