BY AARON PATTERSON
CISSNA PARK —
Most coaches might panic if put Salt Fork’s situation. Two of the Storm’s top returning pitchers have been inactive for much of the season forcing coach Gary Hansgen to rely on the future of the program. To their credit, the youthful arms have responded and helped lead Salt Fork to a co-championship of the Vermilion Valley Conference.
Nearly half of the Storm’s wins this season have come from freshmen and sophomore pitchers. Now, they are hoping a season’s worth of experience will translate to success in the postseason. Freshman righthander Connor Taylor has been brilliant all season, and worked his magic once again in Wednesday’s IHSA Class 1A Cissna Park Regional semifinal.
The Storm defeated the Armstrong-Potomac Trojans 10-0 in five innings to advance to Saturday’s 11 a.m. championship game, and Taylor seemingly breezed through the contest to earn his sixth win of the season.
“We’ve stepped up,” Taylor said of the five freshmen and one sophomore who have made pitching appearances for the Storm this season. “We go out there and work hard everyday and try to get the job done.”
Not only did Taylor (6-1) get the job done, he did it efficiently throwing only 63 pitches, striking out seven, and allowing only two hits and one walk.
Wednesday’s performance was just a sample of what Taylor has done the entire season. He has allowed only two runs (one earned) which both came in his only loss against Hoopeston Area.
Taylor retired the first six batters he faced in Wednesday’s win before surrendering a leadoff walk in the third inning. He faced only 11 more batters in the remainder of the game, giving up singles to Dustin Nixon and Isaiah Robles.
“He doesn’t waste many pitches,” Hansgen said. “He’s got good control. He throws kind of effortlessly. He won’t walk you; he gets about seven strikeouts a game and knows he has a good defense behind him.
“You won’t see him overthrowing. That’s just what he does. He’s been great. With the injuries we’ve had, he has saved us.”
Taylor’s defense helped him out to the tune of two ground outs and six fly outs, and he also found plenty of support from the Storm’s offense.
Though five of Salt Fork’s runs were unearned, the Storm belted a total of 10 hits in the five frames including two doubles, both by Ross Learnard. The most damaging inning came in the third when the Storm plated seven runs to gain an 8-0 lead.
To that point, the Trojans (2-22) were keeping pace with the Storm (18-7), and even after Taylor drew a leadoff walk, Armstrong-Potomac was in position to limit the damage. Instead, a bobbled ball in the outfield and a throwing error on a Salt Fork bunt led to four unearned runs in the inning.
Noah Darr, Cole Sanford, and Garrett McFadden each had two hits for the Storm while Learnard had three.
The disappointing inning was symbolic of the struggling season the Trojans experienced. With two key returning starters transferring to different schools, Armstrong-Potomac coach Darren Loschen was left with only three players with varsity experience to build his team.
Two freshmen and two sophomores were in Wednesday’s starting lineup along with four juniors. While the Trojans might have struggled through a frustrating 2013 season, the returning experience should bode well for next year’s team.
Two of the four underclassmen accounted for Armstrong-Potomac’s only two hits.
“We hit the ball but we hit it right at people,” Loschen said. “You can’t do much when you hit it right at people, but I like the way our kids played. We didn’t give up. But it is a frustrating year. We’ll bounce back.
“Of 13 guys, we only had three that had played varsity ball. We should have 11 coming back and all 11 have started a game this year. We’ve got experience coming back.”
Salt Fork will face the winner of tonight’s game between No. 1 seed Cissna Park and No. 2 seed Schlarman Academy. It is Salt Fork’s third regional championship game appearance since 2010.