PEORIA — Trying to win their first state baseball championship, the Gibault Hawks have the luxury of sending ace left-hander Zach Neff to the mound Saturday against Putnam County.
Game time is 11:30 a.m. at Peoria's Dozer Park (formerly O'Brien Field).
"We've got Zach ready to go, he's our No. 1 coming on three day's rest," Gibault coach Andy Skaer said of Neff, 7-2 with a 1.90 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 59 innings. "He's got the ball and any time we have our No. 1 on the mound, we trust him to go out and give us a chance to win a ballgame."
That's exactly what Austin Beccue did Friday, limiting Shawnee to one hit over six innings of work in a 9-2 Hawks' victory.
In a 4-1 super-sectional win over Jacksonville Routt on Tuesday, Neff struck out nine without a walk and scattered seven hits.
"I have 100 percent trust in Neff," Beccue said. "He's come up big every single game he's pitched this year. You have to put all your trust in him."
Gibault won its first six games this season, then lost three straight before slowly gaining more confidence toward the of the season.
Their tough schedule included teams in all four classes, including 4A schools Belleville East and Belleville West, 3A regional champ Mascoutah and 3A regional top seed Columbia (twice).
"After the 6-0 start we hit a couple bumps and our team chemistry kind of went down," Neff said. "But once we started winning again, we all got back on the same page. It's really showing itself here in the playoffs with the way our offense has been going it's been a fun ride."
Gibault's offense has been piling up runs throughout the playoffs. The Hawks have scored 54 runs in six playoff games while allowing only five runs in their last five contests.
Wes Degener was 3-for-3 Friday with an RBI single, three stolen bases and two runs scored while Auggie Ward and Ryley Wallin had two RBIs each.
"When I was in eighth grade and Wes (Degener) and those guys were in seventh, we knew we had a chance," Gibault senior outfielder Matt Schreder said. "We knew we were all coming to Gibault and we knew we were going to be pretty good, then we found out we were going to be in 1A.
"We knew we had a chance at making a good postseason run, so we worked hard in the offseason and during the season trying to make it happen."
Columbia, now in 3A, was the last metro-east small school to win a state baseball championship. The Eagles won their second state title in 2007, while Highland's 3A state title in 2008 was the last championship won by a metro-east team.
Putnam County (24-10) has a six-game win streak, including a come-from-behind 3-1 semifinal victory over Salt Fork in Friday's other state semifinal game.
Putnam County was down 1-0 until the bottom of the sixth when the Panthers scored three runs to pull out a victory.
Cody Ballerini (7-2, 1.96 ERA) is the likely starter Saturday against Gibault. The Panthers' top hitters are Xavier Warren (.580, 15 doubles, six triples, one homer, 33 RBIs) and Ballerini (.414, 10 doubles, one homer, 31 RBIs).
Putnam County finished third at state in 2008 and fourth in 1998, while Gibault has already gone further than any team in school history.
Even though Gibault had a runner picked off and one caught in a rundown, the Hawks' aggression forced Shawnee into numerous mistakes.
"They put the pressure on us by running the first few innings and they made us pay for it," Shawnee coach Chad Pitts said. "They got stolen bases, took an extra base here and there. They did make us pay for that."
Skaer preaches aggressiveness at every opportunity and he knows not every opportunity will be a successful one.
"We had some mistakes on the bases, but we're not going to vary from our philosophy of being aggressive on the bases and making things happen," Skaer said.