Okawville junior right-hander Brendan Killion didn’t feel like he was totally at his best Friday, but the Okaw Valley Timberwolves offered plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Killion (9-3) did not allow a hit until there were two outs in the fifth inning and survived a shaky fifth inning to nail down a 5-3 victory that sent the Rockets into the Class 1A state baseball championship game.
“I threw fastballs and they couldn’t really hit it,” said Killion, who allowed four hits and struck out five. “Then every once in a while I’d sneak my curveball in there and they were just off because of the speed difference. My defense, they were great today.
“They made all the plays they needed to and some probably most teams wouldn’t get to. They just helped a lot.”
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Okawville coach Jackie Smith had a feeling Killion would not be pleased after watching his 2-0 lead turn into a 3-2 deficit in the fifth inning.
“I think Brendan actually got better after they scored a couple runs on him,” Smith said. “He’s a warrior, all these kids are. If you want to put their backs up against a wall, you’ re not going to get out without a fight. They’ve been that way all year long.”
Killion breezed through the first four innings, allowing only a leadoff walk to Ian Tiarks in the fourth.
“He’s one of the nicer pitchers we’ve seen this year,” Okaw Valley coach Andrew Hagerman said. “We’ve seen guys that throw faster, we’ve seen guys that feature more of a curveball. He had the whole package.
“He’s the best location pitcher I saw this year because if he missed, it was just off the corner. He got us to pop up about seven or eight times in the first three innings because I think he was elevating the ball just above the (strike) zone a hair and we were just throwing it out in the air to them.”
A long basketball playoff run that reached the super-sectional forced the baseball Rockets into a slow start since six of their nine starters were on the basketball team.
The baseball team lost its first five games and were 5-14 as late as April 22. Now they’ve won eight straight games and are one win away from a state title.
“It seemed like nothing was going our way,” Killion said. “I guess at one point in the season we just flipped a switch; we started getting plays, we started getting things to fall and dropping, calls started going our way. Now we’re here in the state championshp game, it’s just great.”
Better at the bottom
Throughout the playoffs, part of Okawville’s success has been the bottom of the lineup getting on and the top of the lineup cashing in scoring chances.
It happened again Friday in Peoria as No. 7 hitter Ben Schuette was 2-for-4 and scored twice while No. 8 hitter Shane Ganz doubled and scored. Noland Crane, hitting ninth, added another run during the game-winning comeback.
“As much attention gets put on our top three hitters, it seems like everybody’s getting the big hit,” Smith said. “Everybody’s sharing with runs and getting on the bases. It’s just great because everybody can say that they’ve accomplished something in the postseason.
“It’s all about the stories that these kids are going to be able to tell. That’s the main thing. They call have something that they can take away from this postseason run.”
All-South title game
A Southern Illinois team has to win the 1A state championship with Okawville playing Cobden. This is Cobden’s first state tourney appearance since losing 12-1 to Columbia in the 1987 Class A state championship game.
“I remember as an assistant coach at Trico and playing against them (that) they know their baseball down there,” Smith said. “They’re passionate about it. While everybody else is picking up the pigskin they’re playing a pretty tough fall baseball schedule as well.
“It’s going to be very fun and I’m glad to see the south gets two teams in that state championship. It should be a fun game.”
There is plenty of baseball and quite a bit of sports on the branches of Smith’s family tree.
His dad, Trico Superintendent Jack Smith, played and coached baseball and basketball, winning a state baseball title as a player at Terre Haute (Ind.) North. Grandfather Jackie Smith played baseball basketball in high school and college in Indiana.
Smith’s grandfather played in the Indiana state basketball touranment against the eventual state champion Milan, Ind., team later made famous as the basis for the “Hoosiers” movie.
“I’ve got a picture of my grandpa going up trying to block a shot against Bobby Plump,” Jackie Smith said, referencing Plump (Jimmy Chitwood in the Hoosiers movie), who hit the shot in a later game to win the state title.
Smith’s brother, Jesse Smith, was on Rend Lake College’s national championship basketball team.
“Everyone’s got a ring but me,” Jackie Smith said.
A great uncle, Bill Butland, played for the Boston Red Sox from 1940-47.
“I grew up learning the game of baseball and basketball and didn’t have much of a choice but to be a coach,” Jackie Smith said. “It was in my blood.”