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TOLONO — The first four innings of Friday’s Illini Prairie Conference showdown between St. Joseph-Ogden and Unity were more notable for what hadn’t happened yet than what had.

Namely the Spartans failing to score a run and leadoff hitter Hayden Brazelton failing to reach base.

Both were unusual. SJ-O has hit double-digit runs in essentially half its games this year and boasts a potent lineup that’s regularly jumped on opponents in the early innings. Brazelton is the table setter for the bunch and a near constant presence on base.

For four innings on Friday, Unity kept SJ-O in check. The next three were the problem.

Brazelton tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the fifth inning with a two-out, RBI single, and the Spartans (29-2) piled on in the final two innings to push their win streak to 21 consecutive games with a 9-4 victory that also delivered a split Illini Prairie title with the Rockets (25-4).

“I don’t think we were real aggressive early in the game,” SJ-O coach Josh Haley said. “A little uncharacteristic. We took some pitches. Had some strikeouts looking and had two innings ended by double plays. Those are rally killers. That was probably the first time all year we hadn’t scored in the first four innings, so you knew we’d string some hits together eventually.”

Brazelton’s RBI single in the fifth — an opposite-field liner to left field — did more than just even the score of Friday’s game.

It also tied Brazelton with Ty Brown for the program’s single-season hits record. A ground-rule double in the top of the sixth that drove in another run put Brazelton atop the record book all by himself.

Brazelton was unaware he was the record holder until informed about it after the game. His reaction to setting a record was the same as his reaction to sharing the Illini Prairie title with Unity.

“It’s big, but we’re wanting bigger things,” Brazelton said. “Better things.”

That’s the mindset Haley said his entire team has had this season. Winning a conference title isn’t SJ-O’s ultimate goal. The Spartans don’t mind taking home a shared championship, but their focus is on what’s still to come with postseason play beginning next week.

“He doesn’t even care,” Haley said about Brazelton’s reaction to his record. “Honestly, these kids, Hayden included, they’re all grinders. … All these guys have different opportunities to do something special for this team offensively, but they want the big one. They want to make it over to Peoria. They take it day by day, but they want the big one.”

Friday’s win was simply another step forward in SJ-O’s pursuit of a state title. Something to be learned from every game. Beating Unity showed the Spartans can take advantage of their opponents’ missteps.

There’s an argument to be made the bulk of SJ-O’s runs came with a little help from Unity. Brazelton was in position to drive in the Spartans’ first run in the fifth because an error extended the inning. Another error in the sixth scored another run and gave SJ-O more chances at the plate, and command issues in the seventh by both Thomas Cler and Cam Marvin loaded the bases and nearly emptied them.

Andrew Beyers drove in a run in each of the final two innings. Griffin Roesch and Connor Hale provided more production from the bottom of the lineup with an RBI apiece in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, as the Spartans continued to build their lead.

“St. Joe is really good,” Unity coach Tom Kimball said. “When you give them an extra out, it’s a good possibility they’re going to take advantage of it. They did. Good teams do that. We had a couple opportunities to get out of some innings and keep the game a little tighter, but we just didn’t do it.”

Unity did make Brazelton work in the final two innings, though. The Spartans’ senior lefty gave up three runs on five hits and four walks while striking out six in four innings. Brazelton got the win in relief of Hale, but the Rockets pounced a couple times on the former’s command issues.

“When you play St. Joe, you’re going to have to hit somebody pretty good because they throw a lot of good arms out there,” Kimball said. “He’s one of their best. I was proud of our guys that we centered some balls there late and made him work and throw a lot of pitches.”

Both SJ-O and Unity will be back on the field Saturday. The Spartans have a road doubleheader against Salt Fork, while the Rockets are hosting Kankakee Bishop McNamara. That they’ll do so as co-Illini Prairie champions sat well with both coaches.

“They’ve had a heck of a year,” Haley said. “I think (that) the two best teams tied for it was best.”

“If you would have told me at the start of the week we’d beat Olympia, (Illinois Valley Central) and (Bloomington Central Catholic) and then be in this game here like that, I would have taken that,” Kimball added. “We haven’t won a conference championship before. … That was one of our goals. We wanted to win the conference. We didn’t get it outright, but a share of it is pretty special for this group and they earned it.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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