After delivering a pair of home runs Thursday that helped the top-ranked Edwardsville Tigers nail down their first outright Southwestern Conference baseball title since 2009, senior shortstop Jordan Hovey may have a change in college plans.
Hovey hit a three-run homer and solo bomb to help drive the Tigers to an 8-5 victory over the O’Fallon Panthers at Blazier Field, where the cozy right field fence appeals to his left-handed swing.
He is committed to Wabash Valley Junior College, but Thursday joked about having a change of heart.
“I’m going to have to commit to Blazier Field I guess for college, just play here,” said Hovey, who also hit a pair of home runs at O’Fallon last spring as a junior. “I’ve had some really good games here and it’s been fun. It’s a beautiful place.”
Edwardsville (28-1 overall, 13-0 in league play) is ranked 17th in the nation by USA Today and first in Illinois by PrepBaseballReport.com, as well as first in the News-Democrat Large-School Rankings. Third-ranked O’Fallon (23-9, 9-3) lost to the Tigers for the second time this season.
The conference championship meant a lot to the Tigers, who hadn’t won one by themselves since 2009.
“I’ve had this goal for the last three years since I was a sophomore and we’ve never been able to really finish it out and pull through,” said Hovey, who has seven homers and 22 RBIs. “It’s nice to be able to do that today, for sure. We’re going to have some fun and celebrate on the bus on the way home.”
Hovey’s three-run homer off O’Fallon starter Bradley Harrison helped ignite a five-run fourth inning, but it was bottom of the Tigers’ lineup that arranged the logs and got the fire going.
Consecutive singles by Jake Garella and Fahd Shakeel preceded a two-strike RBI single by No. 8 hitter Bailey Zimmer to put Edwardsville on top to stay. After Harrison struck out Mitchell Krebs and walked Dylan Burris, Hovey blasted a pitch deep over the fence in right.
“I think Zimmer’s at-bat is the key at-bat in that whole series,” O’Fallon coach Jason Portz said. “With a base open, we’ve got to make a little better pitch to Hovey, whose obviously a guy in their lineup at Blazier Field that’s really got an opportunity to pop the ball.”
Hovey left the yard twice Thursday, the second time on a solo shot in the seventh inning.
“He’s in rhythm better and he’s just been able to put better swings on balls,” Edwardsville coach Tim Funkhouser said. “He’s really settled in. He hasn’t just started working hard, he’s been working all his life and it’s just starting to come out. It’s just the persistence because he had to deal with a lot of failure and now he’s having a lot of success. That’s fun to watch.”
Down 7-2, O’Fallon began clawing its way back on a solo homer in the sixth by Chris Holba off Tigers’ starter Jake Garella. The Panthers added two more runs in the inning before reliever Aaron Jackson ended the threat by striking out Nick Crabtree on a curve ball.
Reliever Chris Robinson tossed a scoreless seventh to close out the win for Garella (4-0), who allowed only three hits and two runs over 5 1/3 innings.
“Our postseason’s probably our main goal,” Hovey said. “We want to win state as bad as anyone else does but you want to win conference, too. That’s just the beauty of competing every day against great teams.”
Edwardsville right fielder Matthew Zielonko made the defensive play of the day in the second inning, running down a drive belted deep into the gap in right-center by Jacob Holl and then doubling off a runner at first with a strong throw.
“A lot of people are going to forget about the second-inning play that Zielonko makes in right field that saves a run,” Portz said. “It may save a big inning for us and changes the whole course of the game.”
The only two losses by Harrison (8-2) have come against Edwardsville, the first in relief in a 2-1, 11-inning Tigers’ win.
Asked to assess this particular Tigers team, Portz said “They’re very comparable to the teams they put out there every year. They’re really executing well defensively, Krebs and Hovey up the middle are as tough as you get. Those kids make every play ... (The Tigers are) really athletic at every position this year and that’s where they’re a little different than they have been in the past. They’re able to do a lot of things.”
After Jackson’s RBI double gave Edwardsville a 2-1 lead in the third, O’Fallon tied it in the bottom of the inning on an RBI single by Crabtree.