In 20 years under coach Brett Isaacs, no Althoff Crusaders baseball team has ever won a sectional.
His current club at least activated the scenario into motion with a 5-3 semifinal win over Central on Wednesday at the Class 2A Vandalia Sectional that sent the Crusaders into the sectional title game Saturday.
“I told the kids they’ve tied for as far as we’ve been since I’ve been here,” said Isaacs, whose 2009 team also won in the sectional semifinals before losing in the championship. “I’m real proud of them for that and we’d love to take that next step. We’ll give it every effort and see how we do.”
After building an early 5-0 lead, the Crusaders (20-8) had to fight to close out the Central Cougars (17-15).
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Kentucky-bound senior Austin Keen relieved starter Ben Hankammer with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth after Central had scored a run to make itr 5-3. Keen needed only one pitch to retire Mitchel Rule on a fly ball to right.
Pitching in his third straight playoff game, Keen allowed a double to Brandon Richter and a single to Kolby Schulte that left runners at first and third with two outs in the seventh. Keen extricated himself from the tight spot by striking out Dillon Smith and retiring Jack Strieker on a fly ball to first to earn the save as Hankammer (5-4) picked up the win.
“I’ve seen so many times in major-league games where they save their closer for the ninth inning and then it’s too late,” Isaacs said. “With that tight a spot, bases loaded and two outs, to me there wasn’t any option. We had to do that and we’ll worry about Saturday on Saturday.”
Althoff will face Teutopolis in the sectional championship at noon Saturday in Vandalia. Althoff’s last baseball sectional title came in 1991, when the Crusaders won the school’s only state baseball championship.
Althoff catcher Bret Silvestri wasn’t worried even though Keen had thrown more than 100 pitches in his previous outing on Saturday in the regional championship.
“Austin’s consistently good,” Silvestri said. “When Austin comes in the game, you just have this feeling they’re not going to score any runs. It’s great to have a guy like that.”
Central coach Kevin Crask admitted it was tough for the Cougars to get a read on the hard-throwing Keen after not seeing him in the previous game against Althoff this season.
“We haven’t seen anything like that all year, so you’re asking kids to basically face a pitcher that if you haven’t seen him in close to 30 games that we played ... it’s really tough to make those types of adjustments,” Crask said. “I was just happy the kids were able to battle back.”
Silvestri had a sacrifice fly in the first that put the Crusaders on top, then drove in a run with an RBI single during the Crusaders’ four-run third inning that gave them an early 5-0 lead.
Althoff’s first-inning run against Central starter Rule seemed to fuel some early confidence. Sam Haudrich drew a leadoff walk, Keen singled and Haudrich scored on Silvestri’s sacrifice fly.
“Whoever can take that lead first, a lot of weight comes off your back,” Crask said. “You’re able to relax a little bit more because you know you’re going to be able to score. If you can score that first one you know you can duplicate that.
“That just took a little pressure off them and made them a little more relaxed. You could tell.”
Consecutive singles by Haudrich, Keen, Hankammer and Silvestri pushed the lead to 3-0, then another run-scoring hit by Seth Bertelsman made it 4-0. Stephen Toenjes dropped down a squeeze bunt that gave tjhe Crusaders a 5-0 cushion.
“We strung some hits together and we executed really well,” Isaacs said. “We got a squeeze down, we had a good hit-and-run, we did a lot - and that’s why we’ve been wining lately, the offensive execution. We don’t score a lot, but we’ve been executing really well and putting pressure on defense. It’s paid off.”
Haudrich’s speed and the bats of Hankammer and Silvestri were good offensive catalysts against Central. Silvestri continues to be a clutch run producer, according to Isaacs.
“He’s been a huge key for us,” Isaacs said. “Even when he wasn’t swinging the bat really well, I trusted him as much as anybody when there’s a runner at third and less than two out. He puts the ball in play and he doesn’t strike out, gets good at-bats every time.”
Central scored twice in the fourth against Hankammer on singled by Kolby Schulte and Smith and a two-run double by Brent Timmons. Timmons drove in another run in the sixth on a fielder’s choice grounder and after Hankammer hit his second batter of the inning to load the bases in the sixth, Isaacs summoned Keen to the mound.
He shut the door despite allowing two baserunners in the seventh, giving Althoff a shot at the sectional crown.
“I like playing close games in the playoffs, it just shows that we’re a resilient ballclub,” Silvestri said. “Nobody that’s playing right now is going to lay down for you. Case in point, we get up 5-0 and they battled back and scored three unanswered (runs). They battled hard.”