PERU – So far in the post season, as well as most of the regular season, the Morris baseball team had relied on strong pitching and stellar defense to keep the other team’s scoring at a minimum and then getting just enough offense of its own to get the job done.
On Wednesday night under the lights in the semifinals of the Class 3A LaSalle-Peru Sectional, the offense showed that it came ready to go. The Redskins jumped out to a 3-0 lead after an inning and a half, but was unable to generate any more runs before falling 4-3 to Peoria Notre Dame to end the season.
“We lost the coin toss, or I should say Peoria Notre Dame won it,” Morris coach Todd Kein said. “Obviously, they picked to be the home team. This was the first time we haven’t won the toss, but I thought, ‘This might be a good thing. We could jump out and get an early lead.’ ”
The Redskins, who finish with a 28-10 record after winning the program’s first regional title since 2003, made like Jedis and followed Kein’s mind trick. With one out in the top of the first, Austin Conrod laid a bunt down the third base line for a single and, an out later, Tom Cheshareck reached on an error. Tim Smyk then smoked a double to right, scoring Conrod for a 1-0 lead.
Staked to an early advantage, Morris lefty Nick Evola made quick work of the top of Notre Dame’s order, striking out the side.
Morris kept it up in the second, as Grant Schluntz caught hold of a 2-1 offering from the Irish’s Truman Ralph and lined it over the right-field fence for a leadoff homer and a 2-0 Morris lead. Two outs later, Conrod singled up the middle, and Trevor Lines shot a grounder through the right side on a hit-and-run to put runners on first and third. Lines then stole second, and Conrod scored on the front end of the double-steal to put Morris ahead 3-0.
“I was very impressed with the way we swung the bats early,” Kein said. “We were in attack mode right from the start.”
In the bottom of the second, though, Notre Dame fought back.
Jake Hurst and Jarrod Watkins each singled to start the inning. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third, but Evola induced a Peter Hanley ground back to the mound. Evola was then called for a balk – although no one but the umpire could understand why – which scored Hurst and moved Watkins to third. Almost on cue, Nick Pudik lifted a fly to left that scored Watkins and what would have been a 3-1 game without the balk was now, 3-2. Evola got Mick Best to fly to center for the third out.
Suddenly, the Morris bats went silent as Ralph found a groove on the mound. The Redskins went down in order the next three innings, while Evola kept the Irish at bay as well. In the bottom of the fourth, the Redskins pulled off a pretty pickoff play, easing a first-and-second, no-out situation as Evola caught the runner on second napping. Evola, who finished with five strikeouts, allowed eight hits and walked two.
“Nick did what he’s done for us all year,” Kein said. “He gave us everything he had and battled and battled and kept us in the game.”
The Irish started the bottom of the fifth with a single by Matt Kouri, who was sacrificed to second by Luke Shahid. After a comebacker by Ralph, Andy Shahid doubled to left to score Kouri and tie the score at 3. Hurst then hit a blooper toward short center that just eluded the grasp of a diving Lines and dropped in for a hit that scored Shahid with the game-winning run.
“When you are facing a team like Notre Dame, that’s built on offensive firepower, they have some real good hitters that are going to hit pitches that other players might not,” Kein said. “Some of those pitches they hit off Nick were good pitches, right what we wanted. You just have tip your hat to them because they were able to get a couple more timely hits than we did today.”
Morris put runners on first and second with two outs in the top of the sixth but couldn’t score and Lines singled in the seventh with two outs, but was stranded there as the game ended. Peoria Notre Dame moves on to play Metamora, a 10-5 winner over Rock Island Alleman in the other semifinal, on Saturday at 10 a.m. for the sectional title.