The O’Fallon Panthers won six straight baseball regional championships from 2005 to 2010.
But since winning their last regional crown in 2012, the Panthers have been forced to watch other teams celebrate despite a combined 55 victories in 2013 and 2014.
“I think our kids are cognizant and aware of that,” said O’Fallon coach Jason Portz, whose 25-9 club is the top seed this week at the Class 4A Granite City Regional. “You can’t worry too much about seasons past, you have to put a lot of emphasis on what’s going on within the program in the present.
“You can’t guarantee a regional because of past success and you can’t get too frustrated with the lack of a regional title when you don’t win one. What happened the last two years is out of our mind.”
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Granite City Regional play begins at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Belleville West with a “play-in” game between the Maroons and Granite City. The winner advances to the semifinal game against O’Fallon Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Belleville East and Collinsville play in the second semifinal Wedesday at 6:30 p.m.
In 2013, the Panthers were eliminated on a grand slam by Granite City’s Chad Spanberger. Last season it was Belleville West edging O’Fallon 2-1 in 11 innings.
“We’re healthy and we’ve played some really, really good opponents to put us in a position to compete here moving into the postseason,” Portz said.
The Panthers have two of the top pitchers in the area in senior East Carolina recruit Chris Holba and junior Southern Illinois University Carbondale recruit Bradley Harrison.
Holba, who will start the Panthers’ playoff opener against the Belleville West-Granite City winner, has a fastball that hovers in the 88-92 mph range.
“He’s got the velocity but the movement on his fastball and his changeup is what really sets him apart from anybody else we’ve ever had in our program,” Portz said. “That’s just a difference maker for Chris.”
The O’Fallon lineup also includes some big bats with Harrison (.427, 12 doubles, four homers, 42 RBIs), Dillon Weiss (.402, 10 RBIs), Bradley Snyder (.395, 21 RBIs), Holba (.355, two homers, 21 RBIs) and Kyle VanBevern (.330, 23 RBIs).
Belleville West (16-17) beat Granite City twice this season, 13-0 and 5-2. The Maroons had won five straight before their annual game against Belleville East at Busch Stadium on Sunday.
West’s best chance at victory usually comes with senior Matt Klosterman (5-6, 1.75 ERA) on the mound, while Jacob Eccher (3-5, 3.28 ERA) has showed steady improvement.
Klosterman and Cal Kossina combined on a 6-0, one-hit shutout last week against Belleville East.
West’s top hitters are Kossina (.434, eight doubles, eight RBIs), Jacob Wilson (.393, three homers, 22 RBIs), Klosterman (.379, 33 RBIs) and Luke Glaeser (.352, 22 RBIs).
Belleville East (16-12) had lost six of eight heading into its game Sunday against Belleville West and finding enough offense has been a problem of late.
Senior Brady Schanuel has been the team’s top hitter (.412, 19 RBis) and pitcher (5-3, 1.29 ERA, 85 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings) all season. Junior catcher and Missouri State recruit Drew Millas (.333, 13 RBIs) also adds punch along with Mitch Harlan (.265, 10 RBIs) and Nick Martin (.257, two homers, 13 RBIs).
Granite City has also lost six of its last eight games, but also owns wins over highly regarded Chatham Glenwood and Mississippi Valley Conference tri-champ Civic Memorial.
The Warriors’ top offensive threats are Ole Miss outfield recruit D.J. Miller (.427, six doubles, four triples, one homer, 15 RBIs), Bruce Drennan (.425, seven doubles, 25 RBIs) and Ryan Steen (.315, seven doubles, 20 RBIs).
Collinsville (16-15) enters the playoffs with some momentum, having won five of its last seven games. The Kahoks are led by Brandon Harris (.364, 11 RBIs) and Dylan McEwen (.341, 15 RBIs) along with pitcher Justin Anson (5-3, 3.48 ERA).
If the 2015 regional championship even approaches the drama of the Edwardsville-Alton duel from last spring, look out. Edwardsville edged Alton 1-0 with Jake Garella driving in the winning run in the bottom of the seventh against Redbirds ace Bryan Hudson.
“It was an outstanding pitchers duel and I don’t think either one of us hit the ball particularly well at all,” said Alton coach Todd Haug, whose 29-6 team opens regional play at 4:30 p.m. Thursday against Quincy. “They had the walk-off hit and quite honestly they hadn’t reached second base for five or six innings. There was a point where it had been five or six innings before anybody had reached base in the middle innings on both sides.”
The teams combined for only three hits, with Edwardsville starter Alex Meyers limiting Alton to one.
“Our challenge is not the game itself, it’s actually getting to the game,” Alton coach Todd Haug said when asked about the possibility of another Alton-Edwardsville rematch. “We have to maintain our focus. It’s one thing to have a good season, but it’s another not to show up flat for the regional because you’ve had some time off.
“Everybody is an obstacle, we learned that playing in the Southwestern Conference. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where anybody can beat you at any time.”
Edwardsville is the top seed with a 32-1 record, the lone defeat a 5-1 loss to DeSmet on April 24. The Tigers, who have been playing without injured Division I catching recruit Brock Weimer since early this season, have won 13 in a row and beat Alton 4-0 and 6-1 this spring.
Alton set a school record for wins (29) and has one of the top high school pitching prospects in the country in Hudson. The 6-foot-8 left-hander and Missouri recruit’s stock has risen to the point where at least one area coach feels he could be chosen in the top 50-60 picks in the upcoming Major League Draft.
Because of his exemplary pitching and offensive numbers, Hudson has drawn some comparisons to former Highland star Jake Odorizzi, who was selected in the first round of the 2008 draft (32nd overall) by the Milwaukee Brewers and now pitches for the Tampa Bay Rays.
“They are the last two great high school pitchers I’ve seen up close and personal,” Haug said. “Odorizzi had the intangibles of being a tremendous athlete much like Bryan. I think he threw a mile or two harder at this point in his career, but by the same token he wasn’t 6-8 and he wasn’t left-handed.
“With Odorizzi and Bryan, they both have had the capability of going to another level whenever needed, where others could not.”
Hudson is 10-1 with a 0.33 ERA and 148 strikeouts in just 64 1/3 innings. He has allowed six runs in 12 starts and 14 appearances overall, with four of those runs coming in one game against Edwardsville. He’s also hitting .448 with 13 doubles, six triples, four home runs and 49 RBIs.
Throwing at speeds of up to 92 mph, he struck out 16 in his last start , allowing three hits in a 1-0 victory over Jerseyville that also draw him drive in the game-winning ru.
Alton’s other hitters with more than 20 RBIs are Aaron Bonnell (.376, nine doubles, one homer, 22 RBIs), Jacob Kanallakan (.358, eight doubles, four triples, 35 RBIs), Drake Hampton (.343, 13 doubles, five triples, 24 RBIs) and Air Force Academy recruit Matt Hopkins (.310, 26 RBIs).
Edwardsville and Alton have split the last two regionals.
“You throw records out the window,” Haug said. “In some ways it’s unfortunate the playoff system is set up like it is, but I don’t really know what more you can ask for. Two of the best teams in the state with one of the best pitchers in the country and a regional title at stake. It’s going to be electric.”
Pitching, defense and timely hitting have been the main characteristics of the Edwardsville Tigers this season. They have nine shutouts and have helped limit teams to one run or fewer 21 times in 33 games.
The talent-laden Edwardsville pitching staff includes senior ace Daniel Lloyd (8-0, 0.50 ERA), senior Aaron Jackson (7-0, 0.69 ERA), junior Jake Garella (5-0, 1.96 ERA), Chris Robinson (4-0, 0.28 ERA) and Trey Riley (4-1, 2.76 ERA).
Outfielder Matthew Zielonko (,434, nine doubles, four homers, 32 RBIs) anchors an Edwardsville lineup that includes Collin Clayton (.432, two homers, 29 RBIs), senior shortstop Jordan Hovey (.382, 11 doubles, seven homers, 22 RBIs), Garella (.390, nine doubles, one homer, 24 RBIs). Bailey Zimmer (.414, 14 RBIs) and Jackson (.371, eight doubles, one homer, 20 RBIs).
Hovey’s 15 stolen bases lead five Tigers with at least 11 steals.
Class 4A Playoffs
Granite City Regional
Top seeds: (1) O'Fallon, (2) Belleville East, (3) Collinsville, (4) Belleville West
Pick to win: O'Fallon
Could challenge: Belleville East and Belleville West
Analysis: Belleville East and Belleville West each have ace pitchers capable of beating anyone in here. O'Fallon has the best overall talent and deepest pitching, plus the Panthers haven’t lost a game to any team here this season.
Top seeds: (1) Edwardsville, (2) Alton, (3) Quincy, (4) Pekin
Pick to win: Flip a coin with the area's top pitcher in Alton's Bryan Hudson against the area's top team in Edwardsville, though the Tigers beat Alton twice this season
Could challenge: The only stunner would be if Edwardsville and Alton aren't in the regional championship game.
Analysis: In recent seasons, these teams have knocked each other off in the regional final. Hudson is the best player here, but Edwardsville has proven itself to be the best team over the course of the season. Expect another pressure-packed regional final and get there early to watch some great baseball.