BY AARON PATTERSON
CISSNA PARK —
The good news is, there’s always next year. The bad news? Well, the Salt Fork Storm have yet to find it. Just when they received news that would demoralize most young teams — their projected top two starting pitchers likely out for the season — player after player began to step up.
With no seniors on the roster and a pitching staff comprised primarily of all freshmen and one junior, it made sense to think 2014 would be their next opportunity to make a run.
Instead, this year’s returning players were left with a horrible taste in their mouths after dropping last season’s regional championship game to Vermilion Valley Conference rival, Schlarman Academy, and they decided waiting wasn’t an option.
After earning a co-conference title with Oakwood, Salt Fork followed it up with a regional title on Saturday in convincing fashion knocking off host Cissna Park 13-3 in six innings.
“You look at it and ideally we’re thinking we’re two years away, but we’ve got an awfully good pitching staff,” Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen said. “Getting here and doing this with losing what was projected to be our top two pitchers, that’s amazing. They’ve really pulled together.”
It was the pitching staff’s lone remaining junior, Cole Taylor, who helped Salt Fork clinch its second regional title in the last four years. For the seventh time this season, Taylor recorded at least six strike outs when he sat down seven Timberwolves. Three came in the first inning. He might have retired more had the Storm’s offense not erupted for its ninth game this season of 10 or more runs.
Taylor shook off the rust of 10 days of rest and helped ensure Salt Fork’s spot in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. Leroy Sectional semifinal.
“His fastball was really helping him get by,” Salt Fork sophomore catcher Noah Darr said. “He was mowing through them. His curveball didn’t really work in the first two innings, but after that it started to break and he started getting more power behind it.
“After Max (Stutsman) got hurt in the first game and Ross (Learnard) hasn’t been throwing much, it’s been tough, but the freshmen, and really the younger players, have really pulled through,” Darr added. “Obviously our No. 1, Cole, has been huge for us. We can’t really do much without them. Connor Taylor and Cole Taylor, they really mean a lot to this team.”
While the Taylor brothers have been getting the job done on the mound, Darr helped set the tone on Saturday with his bat going 5-for-5 in the leadoff spot and driving in two runs.
Cole Sanford also had two hits and one RBI, and Learnard, Cole Taylor, Stutsman, and Garrett McFadden each had one hit. Salt Fork tallied 11 hits total and took advantage of five Cissna Park errors, four passed balls, and five wild pitches by the Timberwolves pitching staff.
Most of the damage was done in the bottom of the third when Salt Fork sent 10 batters to the plate and scored five runs, all of which came with two outs.
The Storm’s biggest fear going into the game was the Timberwolves’ speed. They had seen it during the fall on the football field, and again in Cissna Park’s regional semifinal win over Schlarman Academy.
“We knew they had a lot of speed; we knew they did from football when they go to Milford for football,” said Stutsman. “The corners had to play in because they bunt a lot. I think the last game against Schlarman, their top two players in the batting order bunted six times. We had to be on our toes and ready to go.”
Cissna Park’s small-ball opportunities, however, were limited following the third inning, and the Timberwolves began pressing for hits and base runners. Cissna Park pulled even at 3-3 in the top of the third, but Salt Fork took advantage of a handful of mishaps and quickly shifted the momentum back to its favor.
The Timberwolves (13-15) used three pitchers in the third inning and a total of four in the game. Starter Beau Anderson last only two innings, and Jacob Marquez and Dylan Reetz combined for two. But even after Reetz was able to slow the Storm’s attack, he went on to give up three more runs before being relieved by Devon Laubscher.
Salt Fork (20-7) belted six of its 11 hits in the final three innings.
“I think it brings us a lot of confidence going in (to the sectional),” Stutsman said of the Storm’s offense. “I think we are hitting the ball well. At the beginning of the year, we kind of struggled. We’re really starting to hit the ball. I just keep seeing improvement everyday in practice. Hopefully Wednesday we’ll keep hitting the ball really well.”
Salt Fork will next take on East Central in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. LeRoy Sectional semifinal. The game will follow the first semifinal between Decatur Lutheran and Iroquois West scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m.
Salt Fork defeated East Central 5-4 on March 30 in a wood bat tournament when freshman pitcher Connor Taylor earned the win in the nine-inning game pitching two innings of relief for freshman Josh Kimbro and Darr.
“I can’t give enough credit to the freshmen pitchers,” Stutsman said. “They’ve stepped into a huge role. Connor Taylor has been throwing a heck of a year, and his brother, Cole, has been phenomenal this year. They are really carrying us through the playoffs.”