Burnett delivers gem in keeping regional title streak alive for SJ-O

Burnett delivers gem in keeping regional title streak alive for SJ-O

TOLONO — Crayton Burnett grew up watching Louis Acklin, Hunter Hart, Dalton Parker, Colton Carr, Colton Hale, Mason Coon and a host of others win postseason baseball games for St. Joseph-Ogden in the last decade.

On Saturday, Burnett lived it.

The sophomore for the Spartans was nearly flawless on the mound, throwing a complete game three-hitter and striking out 11 to lift SJ-O past Monticello 3-1 in the Class 2A Unity Regional championship game.

"It's pretty surreal," Burnett said. "I've been to a lot of these games and watching them since I was younger. It feels good to go out there and play in one."

What pitches did Burnett have working to stifle the Sages, who scored 10 runs in a regional semifinal win against Unity two days earlier?

"All of them," Monticello coach Chris Jones said. "He was able to get ahead with the fastball and the breaking ball. Because of him, our approach wasn't very good."

Monticello actually out-hit SJ-O with three hits compared to only two by the Spartans.

SJ-O (26-8-2) never trailed, though, taking a 1-0 lead in the second inning, expanding it to 2-0 by the fourth inning and leading 3-0 after five innings. Monticello (15-11-1) used three different pitchers — Brett Macak, Andrew Rudolph and Asher Bradd — and the Spartans only compiled singles from Sam Wesley and Adam Frerichs.

But the Spartans took advantage of two errors by the Sages, along with five walks and two hits batsmen, to keep the pressure on.

"We didn't hit the ball over the place, but we got on base and got around," said Frerichs, who finished 1 for 2 with a walk. "We just try to get on any way we can."

That early 2-0 lead SJ-O staked Burnett to through four innings — thanks to a sacrifice fly in the second inning from Nick Boggs and Kaden Jacobs scoring on a Monticello error in the fourth — was more than enough for Burnett.

The right-hander didn't allow a runner to reach base until he issued a two-out walk to Andrew Ellison in the fifth inning, retiring the first 14 hitters he faced.

Bradd connected for Monticello's first hit on a sharply-hit single with two outs in the sixth.

Burnett said he was aware at the moment he was throwing a no-hitter and needed only four more outs for the rare feat.

"I tried not to worry about that," he said. "I just wanted a win."

He eventually got the coveted victory, but not before Hunter Williams followed Bradd by singling up the middle and Alek Bundy drove in Bradd during the next at-bat for Monticello's lone run with an RBI single to left field.

All three hits may have rattled other pitchers, but a quick mound visit from SJ-O pitching coach Mitch Pruemer seemed to settle Burnett.

Not that SJ-O coach Josh Haley was too concerned about Burnett losing his composure.

"We trust him so much that I really don't even remember sometimes that he's a sophomore," Haley said. "He's got so much poise out there in how he carries himself. He's a competitor, so I never worried that he'd waver in that situation."

He didn't. Burnett got ahead of Monticello designated hitter Brody Macak and struck him out with the go-ahead run at home plate.

"I was just telling myself to make a good pitch and not leave anything over the plate," Burnett siad. "It worked out."

No such stress followed in the seventh inning for Burnett and the Spartans.

The sophomore retired Monticello in order, and once Burnett induced a game-ending groundout to second baseman Drew Coursey and the ball settled in first baseman Keegan McCarty's glove for the final out, the Spartans poured out of the dugout to celebrate another postseason milestone.

"This is awesome," said Frerichs, one of four seniors in SJ-O's starting lineup on Saturday. "I love winning regionals every year. You don't want to be the class that drops the ball. We didn't this year."

Haley, in his eighth season coaching SJ-O, has guided the Spartans to seven straight regional championships. Saturday's win sets up a 4:30 p.m. sectional semifinal game game on Wednesday against host Bloomington Central Catholic (14-18) at McGraw Park in Bloomington.

"It's special and it's hard. It's not easy," Haley said of the current postseason streak. "That's our job as coaches to keep the pressure on them in all situations and not take it for granted. We don't. We've just been fortunate enough to come out on top a lot. Give the kids credit. It doesn't matter who's in the program or what year it is. They buy in. We're tough on them all year so that they're ready for this moment."

It was a moment Burnett watched play out in previous years, and after contributing as a freshman on last year's team, he's emerged even more this spring.

"We've had a lot of big-time performances on Saturdays the last several years, and boy, he just had another one," Haley said. "He pitched a great game."