Recent surge has revived Blue Storm's fortunes heading into postseason

News-DemocratApril 24, 2014 

— Three weeks ago, the Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm was hovering around .500 and seemed headed for a first-round exit from the NJCAA Region 24 playoffs.

But a streak of 21 wins in 23 games has turned the Blue Storm's season around.

SWIC (32-15) will try to clinch a top four finish and the right to host a first-round Region 24 playoff series when it hosts Lincoln Trail College on Thursday at 3 p.m., in the opener of its final regular-season series.

Wabash Valley College has wrapped up the top seed while SWIC, John A. Logan College, Olney Central and Kaskaskia are battling for the Nos. 2 through 5 seeds.

The top four seeds will host a best-of-3 first-round playoffs series beginning May 3.

"We need one more win to clinch a home playoff series and we've got three game left this week with Lincoln Trail,'' Blue Storm coach Neil Fiala said. "Basically, there are four team battling for three home series and if we would happen to win all three games this weekend, we would have a shot at the No. 2 seed.

"It's important to be at home in the playoffs. Nobody really wants to be on the road and have to travel.''

With an 11-13 record a little over three week ago, SWIC was thinking about making the playoffs. But the 21-2 spurt has changed that.

"We've had good streaks before, but never this extended or this late in the year,'' Fiala said. "Two things happened. We got healthy. Dan Hulse and Cody Massey, both of whom had been out with injuries, came back and gave us two left-handed bats in our lineup.

"And then our pitching became more consistent. Early in year, the weather was so bad that at one stage we played one game in 10 days. We were never able to get anything going. When the weather got better, we started playing more and playing better.''

The pitching staff has been stabilized by having four quality starting pitchers. Dustin Dalton (8-2, 2.40 ERA) has turned into the Blue Storm' ace, while Connor Buenger (5-2, 3.66 ERA), Derek Dillenberger (3-0, 2.88 ERA) and Caleb Arbeiter (3-2, 4.90 ERA) have all pitched well.

Zach Sparks (4-0, five saves, 0.83 ERA) is the ace of a deep Blue Storm bullpen.

Adam Bauer leads SWIC in hitting with .387 average with 30 RBIs. Massey (.362), Holst (355) and catcher Mark Hencken (.347) also have had good years for the Blue Storm.

"Holst has only played 20 game, because he was out, but he's got four home runs and 18 RBI in those 20 games. His return has been a big plus for us,'' Fiala said. "But really when you go down our lineup, all nine guys are hitting .290 or better.

"Defensively, we've been very solid all year and then with the guys coming back and our offense and pitching, we've played some very good baseball the last few weeks.. Hopefully it will continue the next three games and then into the playoffs.''

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