CHAMPAIGN — Four runs in the bottom of the first inning were all Champaign Central’s Ben Dickerson needed.
More than enough, really.
The early lead allowed Dickerson to pitch to contact, and his defense backed him up. Dickerson gave up just a single run on five hits in six innings while walking two and striking out one.
The top-seeded Maroons played error-free ball behind him and defeated fourth-seeded Rantoul 11-1 in Monday night’s Class 3A regional championship at Spalding Park to advance to Wednesday’s 4:30 p.m. sectional semifinal against Chatham Glenwood (12-9) that also will take place at Spalding Park.
“Any pitcher will tell you, you get that early lead and get a cushion and that makes it a little easier to pitch to contact,” Central coach John Staab said. “(Dickerson) pitched to contact, and our defense played well. Pretty complementary baseball all around.”
The Maroons (22-9) have had some growing pains on the defensive side this season with a young infield that features three underclassmen around veteran shortstop Jake Munroe. Central had a clean sheet Monday against the Eagles (3-15).
“Jake Munroe has been the anchor of our defense, and he made a couple of great plays (Monday),” Staab said. “It’s been fun to watch these kids grow into their roles and compete.”
Central’s 11 runs — and subsequent slightly run-shortened victory — came with help up and down the lineup. Leadoff hitter Nate Allen went 2 for 3 with two runs scored, while Munroe drew four walks to create more opportunities for the heart of the Maroons’ lineup. Dickerson helped his own cause, going 2 for 3 with a double, and T.J. Pipkins drove in three runs in the win.
Staab said he stressed quality at-bats ahead of Monday night’s regional title game.
The Maroons wound up with a quality at-bat in 61.8 percent of their total plate appearances in their postseason opener.
“It starts with Nate,” Staab said. “He’s our table setter, and he did the job. Ben’s really been swinging the bat well the last month. … Up and down the lineup we had some quality at-bats.”
Jake Lykins led Rantoul, going 2 for 3 at the plate, and Jaxson Freeman drove in the Eagles’ only run in the top of the third inning. Drew Duden took the loss after pitching one-plus innings and giving up five runs — four earned — on two hits and four walks.
Monday’s win sets Central on a collision course with Chatham Glenwood. The Titans have a well-deserved reputation as a baseball powerhouse in central Illinois. Staab knows the challenge that awaits his team as the two programs meet in the postseason for the first time since Central beat the Titans in a 2017 sectional championship game.
“It’s kind of survive and advance,” he said. “We’ll have our hands full Wednesday, but we’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s’ just fun to advance into sectionals. I told the kids it took me 15 years to get my first regional. We’re not going to take it for granted. We’ll enjoy this one and then get back to work (Tuesday).”