In the southern portion of the annual Southwestern Conference baseball tournament that doubles as a Class 4A regional, metro-east fans have learned to expect the unexpected.
While top-seeded O'Fallon (31-3) is a regional championship threat every season, the Panthers lost in the semifinals a year ago on a grand slam by Granite City's University of Arkansas recruit Chad Spanberger.
Belleville East (16-12) went on to win the regional and the Lancers are dangerous again this year. Collinsville (18-15) and every team in this regional has a pitcher capable of ending any team's season.
"O'Fallon had a great year winning the conference and they really had only one hiccup, the Edwardsville game," Belleville West coach Lee Meyer said of O'Fallon's rare 11-1 home defeat against the Tigers. "People have played them tight and I think everybody in this regional thinks they have a chance of winning this regional. We do too."
The Maroons (15-16) play host to Granite City (15-20), a team they beat twice, at 4:30 p.m. Monday. The Warriors have a strong lineup led by Bruce Drennan (.430, eight doubles, two homers, 34 RBIs) and Spanberger (.415, eight doubles, four triples, four homers, 27 RBIs, 40 runs scored, 34 walks).
"They've lost two of their key players in (pitchers) Austin Buzick and Ryan Steen and they're still finding ways to win," Meyer said. "They're not gong to roll over for anybody."
Meyer will send senior ace Parker Beine (6-4, 2.97 ERA) to the mound against the Warriors with Brendan Saak (2-4, 2.88 ERA) available if needed.
Finding enough offense has been a struggle, but the Maroons' pitchers have kept the team in games. The top hitters have been Spencer Piquard (.385, 10 RBIs) and Matt Klosterman (.341, five doubles, eight RBIs).
While O'Fallon remains the obvious team to beat at the Belleville West Regional, coach Jason Portz knows his team cannot afford to look past anyone.
"You take the postseason one game and one at-bat at a time," he said. "We've had a great season, but I can guarantee you this team is not looking past anybody at all. They have great respect for every team that's in our regional."
O'Fallon had its 17-game win streak snapped Thursday with a 4-2 home loss to Waterloo, but the Panthers got back on track with wins over Centralia and Triad.
One hallmark of this O'Fallon team is an ability to win close ones with a 5-1 record in games decided by one run.
"Our pitching and our defense has certainly been this team's strength," Portz said. "We're not giving up free baserunners and that's been the biggest key to our success, our pitchers' ability to throw strikes and our defense's ability to make the plays."
O'Fallon senior pitcher-outfielder and McKendree University recruit Blake Deatherage is enjoying a tremendous season. He leads the team in hitting at .454 with seven doubles and 38 RBIs and has a 11-0 pitching record and 1.17 ERA.
The pitching staff recently lost No. 2 starter Tyler Herbert (6-2, 2.09 ERA) because of disciplinary reasons, according to Portz. But plenty of talent remains with Deatherage, Chris Holba (6-0, 1.39 ERA), sophomore Bradley Harrison (4-0, 1.35 ERA) and senior Jeff Hahs (2-1, 2.07 ERA).
Sophomores Bradley Snyder (.434, 21 RBIs) and Harrison (.427, six doubles, four homers, 31 RBIs) have been among O'Fallon's top run producers along with Hahs (.410, nine doubles, one homer, 22 RBIs), Kyle VanBevern (.403, 13 RBIs) and Dean Gerros (.293, 22 RBIs).
Leadoff man Collin Holton (.327, 33 runs, 17 RBIs) is the spark that ignites the Panther offense.
The hitters should be at a definite disadvantage in the Belleville East-Collinsville semifinal matchup Thursday. The teams split two one-run games this season.
Collinsville features pro draft prospect and Missouri recruit Tanner Houck, a 6-foot-5 flamethrower who is 6-3 with a 1.80 ERA and 98 strikeouts in just 58 1/3 innings.
Kyle Reeves (5-3, 1.60 ERA) and Zack Mathes (3-1, 2.22 ERA) gave the Kahoks two more capable arms. The top hitters have been Grant Bauer (.367, eight RBIs), Mitch Reising (.343, five doubles, 10 RBIs), Aaron Peskar (.322, 17 RBIs) and Houck (.310, seven doubles, 14 RBIs).
Just like last season, Belleville East has played its best baseball at the end and could be peaking at just the right time.
East pushed SWC champ O'Fallon hard twice, losing 4-3 and 2-0, and split with second-place Edwardsville.
"They have guys up and down their lineup that are capable and they've been coming through," Meyer said of the Belleville East Lancers. "The pitching has kept them in games and they have won some big ones."
The Lancers aren't blessed with power, but can score enough runs with Kevin Horner (.391, three doubles, 15 RBIs), Parker Hendricks (.346, nine doubles, 13 RBIs), Domonic Blaylock (.311, four RBIs, 20 runs) and Drew Millas (.299, four doubles, 11 RBIs).
Pitching has been a major strong point for East with Brady Schanuel (4-6, 2.66 ERA), Austin Wilson (4-2, 2.18 ERA) and Jordan Fredeking (4-1, 1.40 ERA).