BY AARON PATTERSON
Six years after the fact, two plays by Salt Fork’s Cole Taylor are still engrained in the memory of Storm baseball coach Gary Hansgen.
Both happened when Taylor was playing shortstop in junior high, and both gave Hansgen an immediate gut feeling that Taylor had the potential to do great things on the field.
In one game, Taylor made a highlight-reel play, diving toward third base to make a stop before firing a perfect strike from his knees to gun down the runner at first base.
Hansgen later recalls Taylor making an instinctive play to save a run during a summer league game.
With runners on first and third and no outs, Taylor received the double-play toss from his second baseman as he swiped the bag. But, instead of making the routine play, he made a last-second pivot to throw out the runner at home.
“There are kids that play baseball, and there are baseball players,” Hansgen said. “They have a little different savvy about them. At that point right there, I told a lot of people that that’s what this kid is.”
Taylor has indeed proven himself as a baseball player, and further backed up his coach’s early declaration by stepping into a new role this season for the Storm. It was all further justified when Taylor was named the 2013 Commercial-News Baseball Player of the Year.
Little about Taylor’s success on the field has come as a surprise to Hansgen, who has had confidence in the junior pitcher and infielder from the start.
But few might have anticipated just how much Taylor’s talent and leadership would be relied on this past season as the Storm made an impressive run as Vermilion Valley Conference Co-Champions and fourth-place finishers in the Class 1A state tournament.
Taylor batted cleanup and was slated to be a mainstay at shortstop. But his role quickly changed. The Storm’s top two pitchers, Ross Learnard and Max Stutsman, were kept off the mound because of injury. Suddenly, Salt Fork’s projected No. 3 starter became the team’s ace.
“I was kind of bummed,” Taylor said of his teammates’ injuries. “I knew that somebody was going to have to step up, and being a junior, I knew it was my role and I was going to have to do that. Max and Ross both going down was a big hit to us.”
But he never wavered, and finished the season with nine wins, recorded 105 strikeouts in 77 innings, allowed only 49 hits, and compiled a 1.18 earned run average.
“At the start of the year, I thought he was going to give us a nice arm, and probably, at the time, we thought a No. 3 arm,” Hansgen said. “We thought he would be a steady arm. We got into our early workouts on the mounds indoors, and we started letting him go a little bit. We were really surprised at how much his fastball had improved from the prior year. That was such a big strength going forward.
“(Assistant coach) Ryan High had talked about that at one point that he may be a little better than we thought he might be for us.”
Thankfully for the Storm, he was. Taylor didn’t have a breakout performance, though, until late in the season. His season-defining moment came on May 7 against co-conference champions, Oakwood.
In the first meeting between the two teams, Taylor lasted six innings and struck out nine, but ran out of steam as the Storm fell 3-0. Taylor got another crack at the Comets five weeks later.
In the rematch, he threw all eight innings striking out 12 in a 2-1 win. At that point, he knew he and his teammates had the potential to have a great season.
“All the pressure was on Oakwood because if they lost that game, we would be at the top of the conference,” Salt Fork catcher Noah Darr said. “He came out and was throwing good for the whole game. Oakwood was unable to hit him. We got those two big runs. After that, we just kind of took control and knew that it was going to be a good season.
“His arm got a lot stronger and he started to pitch more and more,” Darr added. “After that, he got more confidence and was throwing more strikes. Everything was getting a lot better.”
The win was the first in a string of seven consecutive victories for the Storm on their way to Peoria and the Class 1A state finals.
In the postseason alone, Taylor accounted for three of the Storm’s four wins, struck out 22 in 25 innings, walked five, and gave up only four earned runs.
And throughout the season, his hitting wasn’t too bad, either, maintaining a .402 batting average with a team-leading 26 RBI.
As impressive as that might have been, Taylor was still more pleased with his defensive efforts. Much of it was, again, because of the amount of success he was able to achieve in such a sudden and unexpected role.
“Coming in, you don’t think you are going to have to step up and pitch as much as I had to this year,” Taylor said. “With Max and Ross going down, I knew that I was going to have to do something for us to be successful.”
With all of success the Storm had during the 2013 season, expectations will be high for next season. There were no seniors on this year’s roster, and the Storm are hopeful for a full and healthy squad entering the 2014 campaign. They realize, however, that a state finals appearance will be tough to match.
“We’re going to have to work hard during the offseason, even in the winter coming in and hitting, staying in the groove so that we don’t lose it,” Taylor said. “Team chemistry was big for us this year. I feel like we were more of a team than we ever have been before. I really enjoyed that fact, and I feel like we have to keep that up for next year if we are going to have some success again.
“Hopefully they will take some innings off of me,” he added. “Hopefully Ross and Max will be back so we’ll have a 1-2-3. That will be nice. Everybody being healthy will hopefully help us get back to the state championship.”
First Team Year School
Ryan Berry senior Geo-RF/Chrisman
Kyle Brazas junior Westville
Austin Calhoun senior Schlarman
Jordan Capps senior Attica
Connor Cline senior Hoopeston Area
J.R. Dunwell senior Attica
Jake England senior Oakwood
Ross Learnard junior Salt Fork
Chuckie Robinson senior Danville
Cole Sanford junior Salt Fork
Zach Stitt senior Seeger
Jordan Stover senior Seeger
Cole Taylor junior Salt Fork
Chase Thurston senior Danville
Dakota Ware senior Seeger
Kody Zumwalt senior North Vermillion
Second Team Year School
Karson Allen senior Covington
Aidan Berg junior Hoopeston Area
Ryan Bott senior Oakwood
Kyle Coburn senior Geo-RF/Chrisman
Tyler DePugh junior Fountain Central
Tyler Dicken junior Westville
Jake Fell junior Seeger
Wade Harrison senior North Vermillion
Conor Jarling senior Oakwood
Davin Miles senior Oakwood
Caleb Orahood senior Seeger
Ethan Sliva freshman Geo-RF/Chrisman
Austin Smith senior Attica
Connor Taylor freshman Salt Fork
Isaac Trueblood junior Fountain Central
Michael Vascura junior Danville
Honorable mention — Avery Acton, senior, Seeger; Alex Anderson, junior, Oakwood; Jake Brasker, junior, Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman; Tanner Cox, junior, Westville; Davin Craft, sophomore, North Vermillion; Noah Darr, sophomore, Salt Fork; Tanner Davenport, junior, Milford; Carson Davis, sophomore, Attica; Dalton Dieu, senior, Schlarman; Dylan Dodd, freshman, Bismarck-Henning; James Fortner, junior, North Vermillion; Mike Green, senior, Attica; Justin Harmeson, junior, Attica; Gage Hegg, sophomore, Covington; Adam High, junior, Westville; Cody Kelley, senior, Fountain Central; Dentler Loschen, sophomore, Armstrong-Potomac; Trevor Loveall, junior, Fountain Central; Dylan Marble, freshman, Danville; Aaron Marx, sophmore, Westville; Billy Pigg, senior, Fountain Central; Trevor Price, senior, Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrsiman; Kane Richmond, senior, Bismarck-Henning; Clayton Rieches, junior, Milford; Wade Rogers, senior, Armstrong-Potomac; Andrew Samet, sophomore, Hoopeston Area; Steven Schall, senior, Seeger; Dustin Simpson, senior, Bismarck-Henning; Max Stutsman, junior, Salt Fork; Matt Terrell, junior, Armstrong-Potomac; Kaleb Thompson, junior, Oakwood; Kendall Walder, junior, Hoopeston Area; Austin West, senior, Danville; Jordan West, junior, North Vermillion; Chandler White, sophomore, Seeger.