When Okawville Rockets teams celebrate postseason sports accomplishments these days, everyone meets up at Roland Barkau Memorial Golf Course to honor the players and coaches.
The clubhouse has been getting a lot of use during the 2014-15 school year with the boys basketball team winning regional and sectional titles and advancing to the super-sectional. Now the Rockets baseball team has won regional, sectional and super-sectional titles to reach the state tournament for the first time since 1992, poised to make some noise in Peoria this weekend.
“Doing that so many times in one year is just a great feeling,” Okawville pitcher Brendan Killion said.
“We’ve been a basketball town since the beginning of Okawville,” said junior catcher Brad Fuhrhop, a standout in both baseball and basketball. “We’ve had a few real good baseball players come through, but there’s nothing like making history for the first time. I think we’ve opened up some people’s eyes.”
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Already assured of at least a fourth-place trophy, Okawville (16-17) takes on Okaw Valley (26-6) in the semifinals at noon Friday at Dozer Park in Peoria.
“It means the world to all these kids,” said Fuhrhop, hitting .410 with five homers and 26 RBIs. “We just enjoy what’s going on right now and try to live for the moment. We know we’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”
While Okawville is quite the little basketball town, current Illinois state senator David Luechtefeld guided the baseball team to 506 wins, adding an incredible 711 more in basketball before moving into politics.
The school’s proud girls basketball programs has two state titles and seven trips to state.
“Basketball is always going to be talked about,” said Okawville baseball coach Jackie Smith, 28, also a basketball assistant. “The one thing our kids are trying to do is get be people excited about baseball, too.”
While some might not have expected much from the 2015 Rockets baseball team after an 0-5 start, they never stopped believing. With many players coming straight to baseball after a long basketball playoff run, the hoops hangover wasn’t surprising.
“I think the basketball run helped the baseball run a lot,” said Smith, whose father, Trico Superintendent Jack Smith, won a state baseball championship when he coached at Terre Haute (Ind.) North. “When you play in big games you have to have a certain mentality. When you play in a packed arena in a sectional championship against Carrollton, realistically anything after that is going to come pretty easy. That’s really helped us in the baseball season.”
The Rockets have won eight in a row since a 10-5 loss to Nashville on May 7. Okawville’s state run is the fourth in four years for local 1A teams, following Marquette in 2012, 2013 state champ Gibault and New Athens last spring.
“It’s definitely a shock for a lot of people,” Fuhrhop said of Okawville’s Peoria trip. “I really think the only people that thought we could do it was our own team and our coaches.”
The Rockets made believers out of Concord Triopia on Tuesday, when they wiped out an early 3-0 deficit at the Springfield Super-Sectional and came back to win 5-3.
“I have some kids that are basketball-oriented and some that are baseball-oriented,” Smith said. “But I think I can say this about all my kids: they’re just competitors. I don’t think the sport really matters, they’re just competitors.”
One of the best is junior right-hander Killion (8-3, 2.30 ERA), who will get the ball Friday hoping to pitch his team into the state title game.
“He is a bulldog,” Smith said. “When he plays basketball he’s 6-foot tall guarding 6-5 or 6-6. He’s the one pushing people and boxing out the hardest. He has to work for everything he does and now he’s seeing the benefits of that work.”
Killion’s father, Bryon Killion, was a left fielder on Okawville’s last state baseball tourney qualifier in 1992.
While he is a key contributor in basketball, baseball is Brendan Killion’s favorite sport.
“Basketball helps a lot with the game experience and pressure,” he said. “We haven’t been feeling as much pressure in baseball since we did it in basketball.”
Smith said the biggest difference in Killion’s hot pitching down the stretch has been confidence.
“A couple weeks ago I just kind of kicked in,” Killion said. “I feel like I’m throwing the same, but they’re just not hitting me as well. I do feel like I’m hitting my spots better and throwing a little bit harder, but I didn’t feel like it was that much of a difference.
His catcher, the one with the Yadier Molina socks to honor the St. Louis Cardinals all-star, would beg to differ.
“He’s just unbelievable,” Fuhhop said of Killion. “I feel like he’s throwing five miles per hour harder than he has all year. His curveball’s working and he can hit spots. He’s just phenomenal right now.”
Class 1A State Tournament at a glance
at Dozer Park, Peoria
Game 1: Cobden (25-6) vs. Fulton (21-8), 10 a.m.
Game 2: Okawville (16-17) vs. Okaw Valley (26-6), noon
Third Place: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 9 a.m.
Championship: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 11:30 a.m.
Big bats: Brad Fuhrhop (.410, 10 doubles, two triples, five homers, 26 RBIs); Alec Wisneski (.362, 10 doubles, three triples, three homers, 30 RBIs); Nick Strubhart (.260, four doubles 16 RBIs); Noland Crane (.339, five doubles, two homers, 10 RBIs)
Top pitchers: Brendan Killion (8-3, 2.30 ERA); Nick Strubhart (2-6, 4.30 ERA); Shane Ganz (3-2, 4.57 ERA); Mason Drury (1-5, 4.96 ERA)
Okaw Valley (26-6)
Big bats: Garrett Fritz (.411, 16 doubles, 29 RBIs); Peyton Hagerman (.380, 10 doubles, two triples, 21 RBIs); Devon Still (.349, 19 RBIs); Joe Jeffers (.288 four doubles, three triples, 22 RBIs)
Top pitchers: Devon Still (10-2, 0.74 ERA, 118 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings); Peyton Hagerman (8-2, 1.55 ERA, 126 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings);