BY AARON PATTERSON
As a whole, this baseball season might be one of the most unexpectedly successful that Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen has experienced. But lately, there is little that has surprised the coaching veteran. From clutch hitting and solid defense, to composure on the mound from a young pitching staff, the Storm have carried with them a quiet confidence that makes onlookers wonder why anyone would question this year’s success.
With each postseason win, Salt Fork adds another page to the story that attempts to explain the Storm’s remarkable run. And on Saturday, an exclamation point was officially added to the latest page when Salt Fork shut out Iroquois West 4-0 to secure the IHSA Class 1A LeRoy Sectional title. It is the program’s third sectional title in the last five years.
“It’s great,” Hansgen said. “We didn’t expect to be here. We thought maybe in a year, but then we got to looking at the way things had been developing. We got to talking the other day in practice that it’s there. The line is there.”
Whether or not that line goes all the way to Peoria and the state finals is yet to be determined, but for now, the line extends to Monday’s Class 1A University of Illinois Super-Sectional where the Storm will take on Galva/Williamsfield (15-7) at noon at Illinois Field.
The last time Salt Fork (21-7) played in a super-sectional was in 2010 when it lost 8-7 to Tri-Valley. Junior pitcher and infielder Cole Taylor was in eighth grade at the time, but remembers going to the game and taking in the atmosphere. This year he will go with a different perspective and an opportunity to help Salt Fork make history. That opportunity might not have been extended to Salt Fork if not for a fourth-inning leaping catch the shortstop made in shallow left field.
The Storm had just taken a 3-0 lead in the third, and Iroquois West had the bases loaded, only one out, and was threatening to get on the board.
Freshman pitcher Connor Taylor had other plans. He got Hector Reyes to pop up the first pitch of his at bat for the inning’s second out, but then nearly saw his shutout bid ruined.
Iroquois West’s Payton Stiers hit what appeared to be a two-out bloop single into shallow left field that would have pulled the Raiders to within 3-1. Instead, Cole Taylor ran down the ball on a perfect angle and made a leaping catch that got the Storm out of the inning and kept his brother’s shutout intact.
“That was unreal,” Hansgen said. “There was a can of worms right there that was about to open up. We were in trouble if that thing dropped right there. You don’t know where the game’s going to go. That could have been a big momentum shift.”
The catch left Cole Taylor nearly speechless, though he realized the play’s impact on the game.
“I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. You know that two runs at least are going to score that inning, maybe more if that doesn’t happen. Who knows what could have happened; it could have been a huge momentum shift.
“We had momentum after that. In the dugout, (Hansgen) was trying to get us up, trying to get us to score more runs that inning. I think we got one more. That really helped just keeping the momentum our way.”
The Storm added one more run in the fifth inning when sophomore Noah Darr scored on a series of Iroquois West mishaps. After reaching on a single to center, Darr advanced to second on a passed ball. He later stole third and scored when the catcher’s throw sailed into left field.
Darr also scored the Storm’s third run in the third inning on a passed ball after driving in a run on a single to right. Ross Learnard drove in a run as well in the inning on a double.
Hansgen had a good feeling about his team’s prospects of winning the sectional title following Cole Taylor’s catch, and the Storm’s confidence increased throughout the game. In the top of the fifth, the Raiders had a runner on third and one out. The Salt Fork defense ended the threat when it turned a 6-3-2 double play.
Connor Taylor (7-1) got out of another bases-loaded jam in the sixth with the help of another double play, this time a more traditional 4-6-3 turn.
“We went out there and did a great job,” Connor Taylor said. “The defense did fantastic. It was just an all-around great day.
“I just have to thank my fielders. They did a tremendous job and made plays for us. They got it done.”
While Connor Taylor credited his defense, recognition was reflected back to the freshman pitcher who has still given up only one earned run this season. In addition to allowing only two walks, Connor Taylor struck out two and induced seven ground ball outs. Five other outs were a result of infield pop-ups.
“When we were warming up today, he was spotting his curveball every now and then,” said Darr, Salt Fork’s catcher. “Once we got to about the third inning it started coming around and he started working everything. His fastball was working today, and the defensive plays by Cole Taylor were huge. All those double plays that we made, it was a very good game.”
According to Hansgen, the Storm have so far shattered the program’s record for defense with a 96 percent efficiency rate.
Iroquois West’s Henry Gerritson (10-4) took the loss on only two full days of rest despite giving up five hits, three walks, two earned runs, and striking out nine.
The win was Salt Fork’s 12th in its last 13 games, and it is hoping the hot streak continues for another week.
“It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had; sectional championship, moving on to super-sectionals, playing in Champaign. That’s a big deal,” Cole Taylor said. “We had momentum in the last couple of games coming back. Hopefully we have momentum going into the super-sectional.”