Aeilts, Maroons top rivals for regional crown
MAHOMET — The white stitching on the back of the maroon baseball hats Central players and coaches wear spells out one word.
With every at-bat, every defensive play and every pitch, the Maroons did just that Saturday afternoon.
Their reward? A nail-biting 2-1 victory against rival Centennial to win the Class 3A Mahomet-Seymour Regional championship game and give the program its first postseason hardware in 21 years.
“It’s just an awesome feeling,” said Alec Altmyer, Central’s pitcher who recorded the win. “I’ve never felt like this before. It’s incredible.”
Altmyer wasn’t on the mound for the final out but had to anxiously watch from the third-base dugout as Centennial mounted a seventh-inning rally.
The Chargers (21-15) put runners on first and second base with one out against Central reliever Phillip Swartz. Then Swartz induced a groundball from Centennial’s Jeff Lindgren, whose two-hopper found its way into third baseman Joe Aeilts’ glove.
Aeilts stepped on third and then threw across the diamond to first baseman Matt Brown. It wasn’t the prettiest throw Aeilts made all season — to say the least — but Brown did a superb job, crouching down to pluck the ball out of the dirt to secure the win and set off a spontaneous celebration around home plate by the Maroons (35-2).
“I was ready for the ball to come to me,” Aeilts said. “I envisioned it in my mind if it did. I knew I’d have to step on the bag and beat it out over to first. It wasn’t a great throw, but Matt made a great scoop for me.”
Yes, he did. For the second time this postseason.
“In the first regional game, Matt had another scoop for me on one that bounced,” Aeilts said, “so he really got a good feel for this field and came up big.”
Central’s infielders will now get to adapt to the turf field at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in a sectional semifinal game against the host Cyclones (34-3). Having the record the Maroons have at this juncture in the season, along with a regional championship, wasn’t exactly on the minds of area baseball fans a few months ago.
“It feels great,” Aeilts said. “All season, with all the accomplishments we’ve had, we’ve had this one circled. We were underestimated going into the season, so it’s great to prove some people wrong.”
Aeilts came through with his bat, too, on Saturday. The sophomore laced a one-out single into center field in the bottom of the third inning to score Jake Snider — who had a double, triple and was hit by a pitch in his three plate appearances against the Chargers — and stake Central to a 2-1 lead.
“I just knew I had to get the guy in any way I could,” Aeilts said. “I wasn’t trying to do too much. I was just trying to hit it hard if I got a good pitch. I got one and just hit it up the middle.”
It was a lead the Maroons never relinquished. The right-handed arms of Altmyer (9-2), who lasted five innings and only gave up three hits to go along with four strikeouts and two walks, and Swartz, who gave up one hit in two innings of relief to earn his third save of the season, stifled Centennial after the third inning. The Chargers finished with four hits, and Quin Nottingham (2 for 3, RBI) had half of them.
“Altmyer and Swartz are good pitchers,” Centennial coach Ryan Remole said. “They’ve been raised on the philosophy that good pitching beats good hitting. Their pitchers did a great job.”
So did Centennial’s Anthony Martin. The right-hander (5-4) scattered six hits and worked out of several jams to give the Chargers a chance at the end.
“Hats off to Centennial,” Central coach John Staab said. “I coached a number of those kids in junior high, so I know the type of kids they are. Anthony Martin battled and battled all day.”
The win was especially sweet for Staab. In his 13th season, Staab stood off to the side of home plate after the game while his players celebrated with the regional championship plaque, gathering his emotions. Four previous trips to regional championship games had produced empty results for Staab. Saturday’s victory was one he savored, even as he deflected credit toward his players.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Staab said. “These kids have battled all year, and they’ve bought in to what we’re trying to do mentally. It’s their regional. I was just a spectator. I’m so proud of them.”