The Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm begins its journey towards a possible NJCAA Region 24 championship Saturday, when it hosts Shawnee College in the best-of-three first-round series.
The top-seeded Blue Storm (28-15) is in the midst of one of its finest seasons.
With a pitching staff which has been led by Connor Buenger (6-1), Caleb Arbeiter (5-2) and Ty Stahl (5-1) and a young bullpen to go along with a balanced offense, SWIC was the talk of the Great Rivers Athletic Conference for much of the year before losing the league title on the last day of the conference season to John A. Logan College.
But starting today, none of that matters.
In the eyes of veteran Blue Storm coach Neil Fiala, everyone of the eight remaining Region 24 teams is 0-0 and has a chance.
“Baseball is different in that in a short series, such as this one, if a team gets a couple of pitchers who are throwing the ball well on a given day, they can beat you. And it doesn’t matter if you are the top seed or the eighth seed,’’ Fiala said. “At this stage it comes down to who gets good pitching, which team make the fewest mistakes and the team which has some timely hitting which moves on.
Ranked 26th in the nation in the NJCCA Division I poll, SWIC will take on Shawnee in the series opener at noon on Saturday. The second game will follow 30 minutes after the completion of game one. If necessary, a third game will be played at noon on Sunday — also at SWIC.
Second-seeded John A. Logan College, No. 3 Lincoln Trail and No. 4 Wabash Valley College also are hosting first-round best-of-three series this weekend. The four winners advance to the Region 24 final four, on May 8-9 at Rent One Park in Marion.
SWIC defeated Shawnee in all three of its meetings this year. The Blue Storm posted shutouts in two of those games, but were forced to come from behind in the third game, winning 9-4.
Pitching in that series, as it has been all season, was the key for SWIC. Fiala expects nothing less this weekend.
“We don’t have the guys that throw in the low 90s with good movement on their pitches. But we do have smart pitchers who throw strikes, move the ball around in the strike zone and just get hitters out,” Fiala said. “We’re going with Connor Buenger and Caleb Arbeiter on Saturday and with Ty (Stahl) on Sunday, if we need him. They’ve been our big three all year. Why change now.’’
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2661.