O'Fallon ace Hayden Juenger pitched five hitless innings, and combined with two relievers for a one-hitter, as the Panthers defeated Belleville East 8-1 on Wednesday in a Class 4A Bloomington Sectional semifinal.
A Missouri State University recruit, Juenger had nine strikeouts and threw 79 pitches in his outing against the Southwestern Conference rival Lancers, who had just one scoring threat, which came in the fourth inning.
"It gets us one step closer. So I feel pretty good about how I pitched today," Juenger said. "I was cruising there for the first three innings, but after we had the long bottom of the third inning, I kind of lost it when I walked the first two batters in the fourth.
"To be able to get out of that inning without giving up a run was huge."
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But after stranding pair of runners, the Lancers would not have a runner in scoring position again until the seventh inning. By that time, O'Fallon, which scored four runs in the third inning and added three more in the fifth, had an 8-0 lead.
East senior Ryan Culley broke up the no-hitter and shutout with a one-out, run-scoring single in the seventh off Panthers senior Adam Drewry, who retired the next two hitters to clinch O'Fallon's sectional title game berth.
"To be honest, I didn't even know we had a no-hitter until one of the coaches mentioned it in the last inning," O'Fallon coach Jason Portz said. "The no-hitter was secondary, and I think Hayden (Juenger) would be the first to tell you that."
The win lifts O'Fallon (34-3-1) into the sectional title game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The Panthers will take on Normal West, which defeated Bradley-Bourbonnais in the other semifinal.
Played at Belleville West High School, the third meeting of the season between the top two teams in the SWC was billed as a pitching duel between two of the top hurlers in the league in Juenger and Culley.
But after stranding three runners in scoring position in their first two innings, O'Fallon sent eight batters to the plate in the third to take control of the game.
Junior shortstop Josh Gibson led off with a triple to the left field fence and scored four pitches later on a double by Nathan Martin.
Culley then retired Brayden Arnold for the first out, but Matthew Albritton followed with a run-scoring double, and Juenger helped his own cause with an RBI single to make the score 3-0. The Panthers' final run of the inning came on a Lancers throwing error.
East, which ends its season, was guilty of two costly errors on this warm, windy day. And with Culley having a rare off day and the breaks not going their way, it proved to be a tough day all the way around.
Culley, in one of his shortest outings of the season, worked three innings. East finished the season 21-16 and second in the SWC.
"Ryan has been our ace all all year. I thought he got a couple of breaks today," Lancers coach Ryan Wiggs said. "Juenger was tough today, and O'Fallon's got a very good lineup.
"Still, I'm proud of this baseball team and what it accomplished. These kids are disappointed now, and I told them in the outfield that there is nothing I can say that is going to make them feel better. But 10 years from now, they'll look back and remember all the good times with their friends."
Portz said his team may have been too hyped up early in the game. But it didn't take long for the Panthers to settle in.
"After we had the emotional regional championship game, I was wondering if we might have a letdown," Portz said. "We had a busy weekend, but we had outstanding practices the last two nights."
Jake Holan, Nick Boone and Gibson added run-scoring hits off Lancers reliever Evan Gray in the fifth before Juenger added his second RBI in the sixth inning to close out the O'Fallon scoring.
Juenger, who improves to 9-0 for the season, retired the Lancers in order in the fifth inning. He was taken out in favor of senior Jaysn Miller in the sixth. Miller worked a scoreless sixth inning before Drewry took over in the seventh.