BY AARON PATTERSON
Resilient. It’s not the only way to describe this year’s Salt Fork baseball team, but at this point, it might be the best.
Even when the Storm might seem buried and success is improbable, it’s hard for coach Gary Hansgen to count them out. He’s seen them respond to adversity far too well, and he knows they won’t give up on themselves.
It was a comforting feeling to have on reserve when Salt Fork went down early, 3-0, to East Central in Wednesday’s Class 1A LeRoy Sectional semifinal. And just as the script was written, the Storm bounced back and pulled out a 7-3 win to advance to Saturday’s sectional championship.
“We just find a way,” Salt Fork junior pitcher Cole Taylor said. “We’ve got clutch hitting. It seems like anytime we need a hit we just get a hit. Every time we need a couple of runs, we get a couple of runs. That’s the way it’s been lately, and that’s what we need.”
After giving up two runs in the second — both unearned — and one in the third, Salt Fork (20-7) made an immediate comeback and tied the game in the fourth. The Storm went on to add two more in the fifth, and one in each the sixth and seventh innings.
Salt Fork made a similar comeback in its previous meeting with East Central when it went down four runs early only to score five unanswered to win the nine-inning contest.
“They’ve been resilient all year,” Hansgen said. “Earlier in the year, these guys were down four (against East Central). We’ve been down and have given up the big inning and then come back. We’ve done that a couple times this year. They’ve got a lot of confidence. They know they can score some runs.”
East Central starting pitcher Cyrus Furgeson retired the first nine batters he faced, and it appeared as though the Storm had no answer. But Noah Darr beat out an infield single on the first pitch of the fourth inning, Connor Taylor followed with another which plated Darr on an error, and Cole Sanford eventually drove in two on a double to right-center field.
Just as the Salt Fork offense started heating up, Cole Taylor found his groove on the mound and faced only two batters over the minimum in the final four innings. East Central’s only two base runners during the stretch came on Cole Taylor’s lone walk of the game in the fifth, and a hit batsman in the seventh.
“I think I really settled down after the first couple of innings,” Cole Taylor said. “They were just hitting my stuff at first. I just found a way to get it done.
“I thought I had my curveball spotted. In the last outing I really struggled with that. I worked on it a couple times this week and got it down.”
Cole Taylor (7-2) recorded nine strike outs and allowed only five hits, all of which came in the first three innings. It was the eighth time this season he finished with six or more strike outs.
The Storm gave him plenty of run support, too, with the help of eight hits including two each from Darr, Connor Taylor, and Sanford.
They will look for similar success on Saturday when they face Iroquois West in LeRoy at 11 a.m.
Salt Fork’s improbable run to the sectional championship game isn’t something that was anticipated at the beginning of the season, but a ride they are glad to be a part of.
“This is wonderful,” Hansgen said. “I would have bet my whole paycheck that we wouldn’t be in this position after what we saw the first couple of weeks. They’ve responded. They’ve known all year with the injuries that we did have that they would have to suck it up and find different ways to get it done. It’s kind of engrained in them now.”
The last sectional title game appearance for Salt Fork came in 2010 when they defeated Shiloh (which is now part of the East Central co-op), before losing in the University of Illinois Super-Sectional to Tri-Valley.